Clearing the Smoke: A Former Presidential Adviser’s Fight Against Cannabis

April 24, 2021 Updated: April 27, 2021

Kevin Sabet has never smoked marijuana, but his life revolves around it.

As a teen in Anaheim Hills, California, in the 1990s, Sabet saw problems with marijuana use among his friends. But he felt his community didn’t take it seriously and avoided talking about drugs in general. A friend of his was hit by a driver who was high on marijuana.

“As a society, we should discourage [marijuana] use just like we discourage speeding,” he told The Epoch Times. “We know people will speed; we know people will use marijuana. But you don’t get rid of the speed limit because people speed and because people can even speed safely, they would argue.

“So we wouldn’t get rid of marijuana laws just because some people can use it. Now, we wouldn’t also put you in solitary confinement if you speed, either. So we don’t need to go overboard with marijuana laws.”

He sees himself as a moderate, nonpartisan voice on cannabis policy, though he is by and large wary of cannabis use, which he sees as harmful in many ways—particularly given the rise in teens using high-potency cannabis products.

“I think there is a false dichotomy: either legalization or criminalization, demonization or promotion,” he said. He stands somewhere in between.

Sabet has helped form national drug policy as an adviser to three presidential administrations. He has written books on the issue and formed the nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana to educate about the harms of marijuana use and advocate for good policy.

Sabet recognizes that many people see marijuana as harmless. “I’m very interested in changing minds,” Sabet said. “I always take a challenge of wanting to change your mind. I’m not interested in talking to people who only agree with me.”

Rise to Fame

When he was 17, then-Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates took Sabet under his wing. Sabet joined a community program started by Gates, called Drug Use Is Life Abuse.

Gates surprised the young Sabet by throwing him into a debate about marijuana legalization with Jim Gray, a libertarian federal court judge.

Sabet won the debate. That’s when “I realized that I wanted to raise awareness … in multiple forums about the harms of drugs generally,” Sabet said.

“People used to say, ‘We don’t have drugs here in Orange County. They’re all up there,’ and they would sort of point to LA,” Sabet said. “And I just knew that wasn’t the case.

“In a place like Orange County, a lot of people wanted to sweep the issue under the rug … and I just found that strange. Why wouldn’t we want to help people? Why wouldn’t we want to get them help?”

He studied at the University of California–Berkeley, a famously pro-marijuana area. He started Citizens for a Drug-Free Berkeley, which he said was like forming a Coalition for a Wine-Free France.

“The name was so outlandish for Berkeley that I think we made a pretty big impact in terms of awareness,” he said.

He went to nightclubs in San Francisco’s Mission district and handed out postcards covered in facts about drugs. He used a slide projector to show people who were on drugs the damage being caused to their brains.

He made a name for himself.

For example, he was once recognized when he was trying to stay incognito at a pro-legalization conference. He was scoping out the opposition and its ideas. But his cover was blown by former Men’s Wearhouse CEO George Zimmer.

Sabet said Zimmer charged at him and barked, “I’ve heard of you!”

“Everyone knew Mr. Zimmer from his cheesy commercials, but how in the world did this somewhat famous guy know me, a Persian kid with black curly hair from Anaheim?” Sabet writes in his latest book, “Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know.”

The extent of his repute didn’t fully sink in until junior year, when Colonel Pancho Kinney, the director of strategic planning at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), contacted Sabet and told him he had seen his work.

Once Sabet was convinced the call wasn’t a prank, he joined Bill Clinton’s administration as a research assistant for ONDCP. Between earning his master’s and doctorate degrees at Oxford University, he worked as a drug policy speechwriter for George W. Bush.

Then in 2009, an op-ed Sabet wrote for The Seattle Times caught the attention of the new ONDCP director under Barack Obama, Gil Kerlikowske. Sabet went on to help author Obama’s drug strategy.

In 2011, he decided to move on. “There was a lot I wanted to say. … I felt like I could do a lot more on my own,” he said. “I wanted to start a movement.”

Epoch Times Photo
Kevin Sabet testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws,” on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 10, 2013. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Epoch Times Photo
Kevin Sabet (L), president and CEO of nonprofit organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, arrives for a morning session of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 11, 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Advocacy

Sabet wrote his first book, “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana,” shortly thereafter.

As he saw more enthusiasm for legalization, Sabet sought to engage a new generation across political lines. This ultimately led him to launch Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).

The organization’s website states: “Marijuana-legalization advocates—not scientists, doctors, people in recovery, disadvantaged communities or young people affected by marijuana use and its policies—have been at the forefront of changing marijuana laws in the United States.

“SAM is a group of experts and knowledgeable professionals advocating for a fresh approach that neither legalizes, nor demonizes, marijuana.”

Sabet said, “Science [should be] the basis for marijuana policies. Legalization is a bad idea, but … we need awareness and prevention programs and strategies.”

He said talking about data isn’t “sexy,” but it’s important.

In “Smokescreen,” he details how cannabis use among youth has risen significantly in California. Emergency room mentions of marijuana have “skyrocketed” during the pandemic, “which is scary,” he said.

Sabet cited a 2019 study from “European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience” that examines the increase in marijuana potency over the course of a decade. Between 2008 and 2017, the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the central psychoactive component in cannabis) doubled in marijuana plants and became eight times stronger in concentrates.

“I talked to people who were hippies. They used to smoke a lot of weed in the ’60s, didn’t touch it when they had kids,” Sabet said. “And now … they ate an edible and they had to go to the emergency room because they couldn’t believe what it did to them. It was nothing like what the old marijuana did to them.”

What the older generation may remember that the younger doesn’t, is how big tobacco marketed itself as safe, Sabet said.

SAM’s tagline on its website is “preventing another big tobacco.”

Big Tobacco 2.0

While it’s disheartening to see more states opt for legalization, Sabet said he remains hopeful about SAM’s efforts because marijuana remains illegal in most states. He also pointed out that the Biden administration doesn’t support legalizing marijuana.

California, which became one of the first states to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016, is something of a guinea pig in terms of testing impacts, Sabet said.

“We’re not going to see the full picture for 20 years. But the early signs we’re seeing five years later are not very good.”

Sabet perceives a push to glorify marijuana, and he’s concerned that it’s driven too much by corporate interests. That’s why he refers to the current legalization trend as “Big Tobacco 2.0.”

He said younger generations weren’t around when restaurants had smoking sections, the Marlboro Man was a marketing icon, and cartoon characters advertised cigarettes. He argues that this lack of knowledge prevents millennials and Generation Z from seeing the connection between big tobacco and marijuana legalization.

“We see the same game being played out … for marijuana,” he said. “Before we had a tobacco industry, we didn’t have nicotine and other things injected into cigarettes. … But the industry introduced these innovations and made it deadly and said that it was harmless. Marijuana is doing the same thing: They’re innovating in ways we’ve never seen before.”

Unlike the illicit market, Sabet said the legal marijuana industry produces edibles, cookies, candies, gummies, dabs, waxes, capsules, and countless other varieties of cannabis products for consumption.

“Before big marijuana, we never had these products, and now we do,” he said. “They’re following that same playbook of downplaying the risks; saying they’re not targeting kids, because most people would get very upset when you say you’re targeting kids.”

The existence of marijuana products that are enticing to children hits closer to home with Sabet since he became a father in November 2019.

“It does give you this perspective that this is a cause worth fighting for … no matter what happens,” he said. “It has to be about education and giving every kid a chance to grow up healthy and safe. And now that I have a kid, I want to do that more than ever.”