Skip to main content

Legalize pot? No, reform laws

By Kevin A. Sabet, Special to CNN
updated 12:09 PM EST, Tue November 20, 2012
Pot use carries health risks, Kevin Sabet writes. Reforming laws is a better solution than legalization, he says.
Pot use carries health risks, Kevin Sabet writes. Reforming laws is a better solution than legalization, he says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kevin Sabet: Pot still illegal from a federal perspective, despite laws in some states
  • He says Obama adminstration has been clear on this: Pot carries serious health dangers
  • He says legalization doesn't bring tax windfall states imagine; Big Tobacco eager to market pot
  • Sabet: We must fix worst part of current laws, like penalties, without upping addiction rates

Editor's note: Kevin Sabet served as a senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration. He is an assistant professor and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the College of Medicine, University of Florida.

(CNN) -- On Election Day, marijuana enthusiasts rejoiced as Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. (Ballot initiatives in Oregon and a medical initiative in Arkansas did not fare so well.) From the federal government's perspective, however, marijuana remains illegal. It is anyone's guess what the Obama administration's next move will be, but it is important to understand that this president has long stated his opposition to marijuana legalization.

When it came to medical marijuana expansion in several states, Obama's Justice Department sent out strongly worded letters warning that even medical marijuana was in "violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities" and that "this includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana."

Kevin Sabet
Kevin Sabet

Why the opposition to marijuana legalization in the first place? First, we know that legalization would dramatically decrease the price of marijuana and increase use, according to a 2010 study from the Rand Drug Policy Research Center. And today's marijuana is not the marijuana of the 1960s; potency has tripled in the past 15 years, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. government .

This is not reefer madness thinking. High-potency marijuana has contributed to addiction for one out of six kids who start using it in their teens, direct IQ loss (an 8-point loss among kids using regularly), car crashes, and mental illness.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Many who support legalization have claimed that we could control marijuana use, especially among teens, if only we regulated it through legalization. Sadly, however, the provisions passed in Colorado and Washington do everything but control marijuana. If these state laws were enacted, in fact, we could face a major industry commercializing and promoting marijuana to kids. As we know from alcohol and tobacco, even when age limits are in place, getting people hooked young is a key long-term strategy for profiteers.

Indeed Big Tobacco, for one, has long been perched and ready to make some serious cash from marijuana sales: According to internal documents released during its historic court settlement, in smoking's heyday, Big Tobacco considered marijuana legalization a golden opportunity.

Opinion: U.S. should honor states' new pot laws

"The use of marijuana ... has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line. (We) have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually," said a report commissioned by cigarette manufacturer Brown and Williamson (now merged with R.J. Reynolds) in the 1970s.

If increased use and addiction might be unwelcome results of legalization, what hoped-for results might not materialize? Many have already begun touting tax revenues from legal marijuana as a major plus of the recently passed state laws. Sadly, however, we know that vice taxes rarely pay for themselves. The $40 billion we collect annually from high levels of tobacco and alcohol use in the U.S. are about a tenth of what those use levels cost us in terms of lost productivity, premature illness, accidents and death.

Dr. Gupta on medical marijuana
Workers not protected by pot law
Marijuana's highs and lows
California gov on 'high' expectations

Additionally, our experience with many state lotteries has shown that promised funding for schools falls well short of expectations. As the California Department of Education said recently: "Although the public still perceives the lottery as making a significant difference in the funds available for education, it is a minor source that cannot be expected to provide major improvements in K-12 education." School officials are not happy about this: "We thought that it would be a windfall," said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "The general public -- they were fooled by this."

Opinion: The end of the war on marijuana

We also know that the promise of ending violent cartels is far from reality. A recent RAND report showed that Mexican drug trafficking groups only received a minority of their revenue from marijuana. So they are likely to stay around, legal marijuana or not.

Voters have been sold a false dichotomy: "You can either stick with failed, current policies, or you can try a 'new approach' with legalization." Sadly, this kind of black-and-white thinking betrays the fact that there are better ways than legalization or prohibition to deal with this complex issue.

Legalization may not be the answer, but that also means that former users with an arrest record should not be prevented from getting a job or accessing social benefits. We need to have an adult conversation about marijuana arrests among disadvantaged communities, too, to ensure equal justice under the law. Increased education and treatment will work better than incarceration and a sole reliance on the criminal justice system.

Indeed, we can reform the worst part of our current laws without increasing rates of addiction and harms. Let's think before we legalize.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Sabet.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT