Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, Shares Important Lessons from Cannabis Legalization | Center on Addiction

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, Shares Important Lessons from Cannabis Legalization

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, Shares Important Lessons from Cannabis Legalization


Dr. Sabet, Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and Co-Founder, President and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, spoke during our Addiction Speaker Series about the impact of marijuana legalization in our country. Research shows that the vast majority (91 percent) of calls to poison control centers for unintentional exposure to marijuana edibles among young children come from states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, which have legalized and marketed marijuana. National data also indicate that Colorado ranks highest in rates of adolescent marijuana use – higher than the national average. States like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon also rank lowest in measures of adolescent perceptions of risk from smoking marijuana.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sabet about his work. 

You explained that cannabis use rates have increased among adolescents. Why is this trend particularly dangerous for this age group?

Science has proven – and all major scientific and medical organizations agree – that marijuana is both addictive and harmful to the human brain, especially when used as an adolescent. One in every six 16-year-olds who try marijuana will become addicted to it. And if an adolescent has a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder, using marijuana as their brain continues to develop can increase the risk of that disorder.

Marijuana use also has an impact on academic motivation and achievement. Research shows that adolescents who smoke marijuana once a week over a two-year period are almost six times more likely than nonsmokers to drop out of school and over three times less likely to enter college. And scientists have also found that youth marijuana use is associated with lower scores on IQ tests.

Do you think the cannabis industry targets adolescents?

Like Big Tobacco of yesteryear, Big Marijuana knows that it needs lifelong addicted customers to prosper. Addictive industries generate the majority of their profits from those who are addicted, not casual users. This means that facilitating heavy, repeated, and addictive use is the central goal. As every good tobacco executive knows (but won’t tell you) this, in turn, means targeting young people.

An internal memo to the company president of a major tobacco company once wrote, “the base of our business is the high school student.” Sadly but predictably, the marijuana industry is following in their footsteps and targeting adolescents because they have financial incentive to do so. 

Why do you think that juvenile arrests relating to cannabis have increased in Colorado following legalization there?

Using marijuana in public and youth use of marijuana have both increased since Colorado legalized marijuana – and both remain illegal for youth. Colorado now leads the country in past-month marijuana use by youth. This would explain increases in juvenile arrests for marijuana.

Also troubling is the fact that significantly more African-American and Hispanic youth are being arrested for marijuana since the state legalized pot, whereas arrest rates for white children have slightly declined.

What do you think is the problem behind for-profit companies producing and selling cannabis?

The problem is that addictive, for-profit industries have proven incredibly harmful to public health and safety in our country. Not only has a new industry sprung up that is marketing highly potent marijuana candies and cookies to kids, but a relentless special interest marijuana lobby has come with it. This lobby is pouring money into fighting common sense marijuana regulations. In Denver, their money pushed through an initiative to bring back smoking in restaurants, and in California, they bankrolled a law that would allow pot advertising on television.

Can you explain the false dichotomy of cannabis legalization vs. incarceration?

For too long, our conversation about marijuana has centered on a tired, old idea that says we either have to lock people up for smoking pot or “legalize it.” The former can ruin lives over one joint. The latter would make marijuana the next tobacco industry. Neither is in the interest of public health and safety. We don’t have to legalize (and commercialize) marijuana – but we don’t need a “War on Drugs” approach either. That’s where Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) comes in.

SAM promotes science-driven, evidence-based reforms that discourage use while avoiding criminal penalties. There are a wide array of smart-on-crime alternatives that remove criminal penalties for smoking marijuana including drug courts, pre-trial diversion programs, and probation reform. Communities are healthier and safer when these reforms are coupled with prevention and treatment programs.

Can you explain your opinion on medical cannabis?

There are far too many Americans who suffer from life-threatening, debilitating chronic illness. Patients deserve to know that we are doing everything possible to help alleviate their pain in a safe, regulated way. Clearly, there are components of cannabis that provide therapeutic effects. However, the smoked marijuana does not meet the standard of safe and effective modern medicine. Smoking the plant is not an efficient delivery system, as it is impossible to measure exact dosage and contains hundreds of additional components that could have adverse or unknown effects. Smoking the raw form of marijuana is akin to smoking opium to get the effects of morphine, or willow bark for pain relief already available as aspirin.

There is an urgent need to support expanded research for medical marijuana, and I support those efforts, so long as they are studied and approved the way we do all other medications. The bottom line is that SAM encourages component treatments that are FDA-approved, prescribed by a physician, and dispensed by a pharmacy.

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD

Dr. Sabet is Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and Co-Founder, President and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana


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