Sabet's Seven Myths: Popular Responses From The Cannabis Community

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FLINT- One of the nation's foremost authorities on reasons to prevent America from adopting more marijuana-friendly laws is Dr. Kevin Sabet. As a frequent speaker at drug prevention seminars and on television programs, Sabet's arguments against medical use and legalization of marijuana are repeated in court rooms and Council chambers across the nation.

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Sabet's stance is one of maintaining the criminality of cannabis to prevent marijuana use by Americans and putting marijuana users into drug treatment agencies instead of the penal system. He described his position in an Op-Ed for the Christian Science Monitor (CSM): "In short, my work has shown that marijuana legalization would pose too many risks to public health and safety."

Sabet is so omnipresent that representatives of national organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have debated him and composed listings of his favored arguments. In advance of a Sabet appearance, activists should have the information necessary to convey alternative viewpoints to media or their local House Representative.

Co-founder and Director of Project SAM as well as the current director of of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, Sabet was a former senior adviser on drug policy to a member of President Obama's cabinet, and to the administrations of both Bush and Clinton.  Sabet is also touring the country to promote his new book, in which he exposes "seven  great myths" regarding cannabis. Those seven subjects compose the foundation of Sabet's arguments against liberalizing marijuana use.

The Seven

Sabet outlined his seven in the CSM editorial. Here we summarize each of the seven myths, present his position and include responses from pro-marijuana advocates.

Myth #1: Marijuana is Harmless and Non-Addictive. 

Sabet: To say marijuana is harmless or nonaddictive is to deny science; 1 out of every 6 adolescents who try the drug will develop an addiction; the average strength of today's marijuana is some five to six times what it was in the 1960s and 1970s; almost 400,000 marijuana-related emergency room visits in 2008 due to things like acute psychotic episodes and car crashes; marijuana intoxication doubles your risk of a car crash; science indicates a  significant marijuana connection with schizophrenia; persistent marijuana use can blunt academic motivation and significantly reduce IQ; marijuana use hurts America's ability to learn and compete in a global marketplace.

Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, a senior resident physician at a large academic medical center in New York City, writing on AlterNet:

This (IQ) assertion is based on a reference to a research study from New Zealand published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science in August 2012 that grossly mischaracterizes its results, and did not in fact establish this causal link.

In this research, there was no breakdown of frequency or amount of cannabis used to see if there was any "dose dependency" to the effects---an important item in association studies. The study's cannabis exposure data was strictly based on self-report, even though other data, such as the subjects' reported cognitive performances, were corroborated by statements from close contacts. There was only consideration of alcohol dependence, not binge drinking patterns, which have also been shown to be neurotoxic, and if occurring, would confound results. Schizophrenia was considered as a confounding factor, but other mental illnesses such as major depression, anxiety, PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions, all of which can reduce performance on neurocognitive tests, were not factored in.

In other words, the "pot makes you stupider" proof was not there.

Aggarwal, later in that same article:

Pioneering scientists and doctors such as Carl Sagan, Lester Grinspoon, Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Andrew Weil, Oliver Sacks, and others have stated that cannabis use improved the quality of their intellectual work.

Aggarwal, again in that article;

If there are higher potency forms of herbal cannabis available, based on THC content, it's due to the pressures produced by prohibition and the lack of legal regulation. And it can be a good thing, if a higher THC percentage is present, as a consumer would need to consume less to achieve a desired effect. Additionally, there are other cannabinioids and terpeniods whose concentration can be varied to produce a variety of effects.

While people can certainly have unpleasant reactions from consuming too much THC-rich cannabis, the best way to address this is labeling and consumer education, not blackmarket-generating prohibition and contrabanding.

Aggarwal debunks the 1 in 6 addiction claim:

Sabet has made this outrageous statement by citing Johns Hopkins epidemiologist J.C. Anthony, as well as federal drug abuse research summaries produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), whose director, Nora Volkow, has made this same claim.

Both sources, however, rely on psychiatric diagnostic manuals widely criticized in peer-reviewed literature (see here and here) for gross over-pathologization of substance-related problems...

The NIDA reference to "1 in 6" is based on self-reported data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health to analyze data for "age of first marijuana use" and "Illicit Drug Dependence or Abuse in the Past Year." In a similar maneuver, the authors added the percentages for drug-dependent youths who had used marijuana age 14 or younger (12.7%) and ages 15-18 (4.9%), which equalled 17.6%, or "1 in 6." They effectively played with numbers to invoke the widely debunked marijuana gateway theory.

Myth #2: Smoked or Eaten Marijuana is Medicine.

Sabet: While the marijuana plant has known medical value, that does not mean smoked or ingested raw marijuana is medicine; a pill, Marinol, a new oral spray Sativex, are the real medicines; patients should be able to access a medication that is both scientifically approved and obtainable at a pharmacy; the point is not to deny patients a medication to help them, but to prevent smoked or eaten marijuana from becoming a smokescreen for recreational use.

From the NORML national website:

According to editors of the prestigious Lancet British medical journal: "The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health. ... It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat ... than alcohol or tobacco."
REFERENCE: Deglamorising Cannabis. 1995. The Lancet 346: 1241. Editorial. November 14, 1998.The Lancet.

More than 76 million Americans have admittedly tried marijuana. The overwhelming majority of these users did not go on to become regular marijuana users, try other illicit drugs, or suffer any deleterious effects to their health.
REFERENCE: Combined data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1996. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Main Findings 1994. Rockville, MD and 1995. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1994

Aggarwal:

However one medicinal agent is delivered into the body should have no bearing whatsoever on how another medicinal agent should or should not be given. To believe so shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the variation of medicines and modes of delivery in modern clinical practice. To allow medicinal use of cannabis-marijuana does not mean that one would only be presented with the option of smoking it to receive its therapeutic effects. Many other modes of delivery: oral, topical, sublingual, vaporized, etc. are available.

Rick Thompson from The Compassion Chronicles (TCC):

The respiratory system is used to deliver medicines like oxygen, nasal sprays and inhalers. Cannabis vapor uses the same delivery method and should not be precluded from use on a medical basis. Smoking through filtration systems like water bongs and minimizing inhalations via the use of concentrates are steps which reduce exposure to any potentially lung damaging tars, making the concept of legalized smoking far less of a health risk.

Philip Smith, writing in Stop The Drug War:

For Sabet, if it ain't a pill manufactured by a drug company, it ain't medicine. For medical marijuana supporters (and many others), however, the wonders of pills, with all their toxicities and other side effects, leave something to be desired. A nice hit of high-CBD weed or a cup of poppy tea work quite well, and they're not going to destroy your liver or make your hair fall out or cause impotence or any of those other litanies of side effects we're treated to in those drug company TV ads.

Myth #3: Countless People Are Behind Bars Simply for Smoking Marijuana.

Sabet: Legalizing marijuana will not make even a small dent in America's state or federal imprisonment rates; less than 0.3 percent of all state prison inmates are there for smoking marijuana; most people arrested for marijuana use are cited with a ticket; very few serve time behind bars; still, society shouldn't saddle low-level marijuana users with criminal records.

Russ Belville, host of the Russ Belville Show, in his article "Kevin Sabet Lies To Alaska About Marijuana":

663,032 people were arrested for marijuana possession last year. They do not all end up in prison, though Kevin will admit 0.7% of state inmates are in prison for possession only, about 9,177 people. They do end up with mug shots and records that follow them for life, though, and do spend booking and holding time in a cage. Kevin will also obfuscate by saying many of these people pleaded down from serious offenses... like growing or selling marijuana, violating possession, owning a gun, "endangering" a minor, forming a conspiracy, obstructing justice, and so forth.

TCC:

Legalization of marijuana protects people not only for their use of cannabis but for their possession of it as well. Sabet conveniently neglects to include the vast number of people incarcerated for possession when he cites his 0.3% number when explaining the dent legalization will have on the penal system. Naturally there will be a small number of people charged with marijuana use: it's the possession of the Schedule 1 substance that is criminally charged and Sabet's failure to include these possession statistics are a weakness in his rhetoric.

Myth #4: The Legality of Alcohol and Tobacco Strengthen the Case for Legal Marijuana. 

Sabet: Alcohol and cigarettes are used at such a high rate due to their wide availability; they cause more harm and kill more people than all illegal drugs combined; why add a third drug to the list of legal killers?

Belville:

As for "Big Alcohol" and "Big Tobacco", why wouldn't we learn the lessons from those two and begin the "Big Marijuana" era with the same sort of advertising restrictions tobacco faces and age restrictions and public education campaigns alcohol's generated?

TCC:

Marijuana use represents an alternative to alcohol, and in states where medical marijuana has been legalized there is an 8-11% reduction in traffic fatalities related to alcohol in the first full year after the law was adopted. Alcohol overdose deaths are catastrophic in our youth; although no one advocates for recreational marijuana use among adolescents, there has never been an overdose death from cannabis. Lives would be saved, even if legalization is not directed at our youth. Pediatric cannabis use is authorized for medicinal purposes to hundreds of children across the United States; the number of children authorized by doctors to drink a beer or slam some Yagermeister to improve their health is equal to the number of people that have died from marijuana use. Equating the negative effects of cannabis and alcohol is an argument that overwhelmingly favors societal cannabis use.

Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML, in the CSM:

Numerous adverse health consequences are associated with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription pharmaceuticals - all of which are far more dangerous and costly to society. That's why these products are legally regulated and their use is restricted. A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for limited, licensed production and sale of cannabis to adults, but restricts use among young people, would best reduce risks associated with its use or abuse.

Myth #5: Legal Marijuana Will Solve the Government's Budgetary Problems. 

Sabet: Neither states nor the federal government can expect any net gain with marijuana legalization; for every $1 in state and federal revenue from alcohol and tobacco taxes, America spends more than $10 in social costs; two major business lobbies - big tobacco and the liquor lobby - work hard to keep taxes on these drugs from rising and to promote use.

Lucia Graves, writing in the Huffington Post:

The federal government could save as much $13.7 billion annually if it were to legalize marijuana, according to a paper by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

More than half of the savings, $7.7 billion, would come from not having to enforce the current prohibitions against the drug, while an additional $6 billion per year would come from taxing marijuana at rates similar to tobacco and alcohol. Since the paper was first published in 2005, more than 300 economists, including three Nobel laureates, have signed a petition to call attention to the work and initiate a debate among people on both sides of the issue.

Thompson, writing in The Compassion Chronicles:

Washington State's fiscal report of costs and benefits of this new legalization legislation yields a startling projection of $1.9 billion generated or saved during the program's first 5 years. Michigan's larger population indicates the Great Lakes State could reap a $2.8 billion payoff for initiating similar legislation.

Stephen Easton of the Fraser Institute, writing in Business Week:

We do know, however, that according to recent figures, U.S. consumers number anywhere from 25 million to 60 million (depending on how likely survey respondents are to tell the whole truth), and at an average cost of $5 per cigarette (and factoring in one per day for each user), total spending on marijuana may add up to $45 billion to $110 billion a year.

What about possible tax revenue? From Canada we've learned that the production cost of (government-sponsored) marijuana is roughly 33¢ a gram. Currently, U.S. marijuana consumers pay at least $10 per gram retail for illegal marijuana. If the cost of retailing and distribution is the same as for legal tobacco cigarettes, about 10¢ a gram, then selling the (legal) product at exactly the same price as on the street today ($10 per gram) could raise $40 billion to $100 billion in new revenue. Not chump change. Government would simply be transferring revenue from organized crime to the public purse.

TCC:

Sabet distorts the true value of marijuana legalization by focusing on a single aspect of revenue generation- federal tax funds. Licensing and regulatory fees will generate national revenue, but the greatest impact will be on local and state communities. Per-sale fees, property taxes, revenue related to employment and a reduction in persons using social welfare are all benefits delivered from marijuana legalization.

Myth #6: Portugal and Holland Provide Successful Models of Legalization.

Sabet: Contrary to media reports and partisan think tanks, Portugal and the Netherlands have not legalized drugs; In the Netherlands, officials seem to be scaling back their "coffee shops"; higher rates of marijuana use and treatment admissions drove the change; America's obsession with advertising makes control of the industry questionable.

Belville:

In Portugal, possession of 10-days' personal supply of ANY drug is not a crime.

Smith:

Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs, and Holland tolerates controlled sales and possession of small amounts. (Sabet) points to mixed results from Portugal and to recent moves from conservative Dutch governments to try to rein in the cannabis coffee shops, but fails to note the strong resistance in Holland. He also points to increasing Dutch teen marijuana use, but fails to note that it is well within European norms. He also fails to note the consistent finding from social scientists that the link between drug policies and drug use rates is quite weak.

Myth #7: Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment are Doomed to Fail --- So Why Try? 

Sabet: Less than 8 percent of Americans smoke marijuana versus 52 percent who drink and 27 percent who use tobacco; keep marijuana illegal and continue to spend resources on reducing demand; communities that implement local anti-marijuana strategies have shown significant reductions in marijuana use; try using brief interventions, treatment for marijuana addiction, probation reform programs and drug treatment courts instead of legalization; the government allowing for-profit marijuana businesses is dangerous and misguided; make nonsmoked, scientifically approved medications derived from marijuana available.

Mason Tvert, communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project, on their website:

"The proposal (to give all marijuana users addiction treatment therapy) is on par with forcing every alcohol user into treatment at their own cost or at a cost to the state... In fact, it would be less logical because the science is clear that marijuana is far less toxic, less addictive, and less likely to be associated with acts of violence.

Belville:

First of all, the "drink responsibly" and "anti-smoking" campaigns have lowered that drinking stat from 60% and the smoking stat from 37% in thirty years time. So under stricter regulation for those drugs, use went down. Second, marijuana use has declined from 14% to 7%. So under prohibition for that drug, use went down. Third, this assumes adult marijuana use increasing is a bad thing, when its increase may also lead to less use of alcohol, tobacco, and prescription pills.

Smith:

Sabet seems to assume that anyone who smokes marijuana needs treatment, and he's willing to see you arrested, sent to drug court or its equivalent, and placed under extended surveillance by the state to get his druthers. Also, typically, he points to high numbers of marijuana users in treatment without noting that a majority of them are sent there by the courts, the schools, or other authority figures after getting busted --- not because they are "marijuana addicts."

Source: The Compassion Chronicles

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