The argument against legalizing marijuana

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

New Jersey’s newly appointed interim U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito — who defended Gov. Chris Christie against a Bridgegate related complaint — got new marching orders from Attorney General Jeff Sessions the morning after he was appointed. Sessions rescinded an Obama era policy and gave his U.S. attorneys the green light to aggressively enforce federal laws that make marijuana illegal, even in states where pot’s been legalized. The move throws into question prospects for legalizing pot in New Jersey. Dr. Kevin Sabet with NJ RAMP, or Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, sat down with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron to discuss possible downsides to legalizing marijuana.

Aron: Kevin Sabet, New Jersey could be on the verge of legalizing marijuana. The governor-elect is totally for it. The Senate president if for it. The incoming assembly speaker is a little more noncommittal. What would you say to them about stop?

Sabet: Well, I think we need to slow down, and actually I’m not so sure it’s a done deal yet. We’re getting calls and inquiries daily from members of the governor’s own party who may not publicly want to show opposition yet, but privately they have a lot of concerns because they see what’s happened in Colorado, more car crashes, more people using. They don’t think the state is ready yet to embark on something so big. And then they also say maybe we can just decriminalize possession and work the social justice angle that way and make sure minority populations aren’t thrown behind bars. But do we really need to legalize and have pot shops selling candies and cookies on Main Street? A lot of people, including our organization, think that’s a bridge too far.

RELATED: Summit on drugged driving urges state to slow down marijuana legalization

Aron: Is the traffic fatality story in Colorado real and settled and agreed upon, or do both sides look at it differently?

Sabet: Obviously the pot industry is trying to say that it has nothing to do with them, just like the alcohol industry said 30 years ago before drunk driving was an issue, that it had nothing to do with them either. That’s to be expected. Look, there’s a massive industry trying to make a ton of money here. They’re mainly rich guys from Wall Street that see New Jersey as prime for them to make even more money. But the data on drugged driving, when you talk to AAA, when you talk to the Department of Transportation, the National Highway Transportation Safety Board and Administration, they universally say there’s been an increase since legalization in states like Washington state, also Colorado, of fatalities where the driver recently had THC in their system and that’s a big concern.

Aron: Governor-elect Murphy says that the most important component of legalizing marijuana is not the tax money, it’s the social justice aspect that African-American young men are three times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, Latinos two times more likely, and that we need to legalize it to save populations. What do you say to that?

Sabet: He’s right that the tax money is a drop in the bucket and it would never pay for the cost. I’m glad he’s right there. On the social justice stuff, he’s right that we should try and reduce minority populations in prison and being arrested, but you could do that by decriminalizing. You could remove criminal penalties for use so that’s it’s a fine, or community service, or education or a warning, even. There are a lot of things that you can do. New Jersey already has a conditional discharge program, you can expand that. There are so many things that you can do to get there.

Aron: Let me stop you there, you admit in a document that I saw that decriminalization is a confusing term.

Sabet: It’s a very confusing term.

Aron: Isn’t somebody who’s sanctioned the way you just described, in some decriminalized way but still sanctioned, isn’t he or she stigmatized?

Sabet: No more stigmatized that if you got a parking ticket or a speeding ticket, depending on what you were doing. So we want to make sure that kids who make a dumb decision when they’re 16, or a young adult, and uses marijuana in public or while driving or what not, that there is some kind of penalty, but it doesn’t follow them around their whole life. We want to make sure they have housing, health care, access to jobs, etc. So you can do that, and there are many ways to do that.

Aron: Are you in favor of decriminalizing marijuana in New Jersey?

Sabet: I’m in favor of removing criminal penalties so that, you’re right, decriminalization’s confusing, I shouldn’t have used it, but removing criminal penalties so that people are not stigmatized in the future. That can get what the governor-elect wants to get done. I think there’s wide consensus on that. But to legalize that means you’re now agreeing with the sales, which by the way is against federal law, the sales, that you want to have pot shops in your community, selling edibles. The average New Jerseyan who might have tried pot, they did so 20 years when marijuana was 4 percent THC. Today’s products can be 20, 30 percent. The edibles can be much more than that, candies, cookies, ice creams. These waxes are 99 percent THC, doesn’t resemble the old, you know, your dad’s weed, of the past. I worry that these things being sold on Main Street is a very bad idea for New Jersey.

Aron: Your bio says that you’ve advised three presidential administrations on drug policy. Was President Obama for legalization at some point toward the end of his presidency?

Sabet: Toward the end, no I don’t think so, but no he wasn’t. In fact, when he was asked about this, in Jamaica of all places where they brought it up, he said he’s very concerned about corporations, massive, new corporations, taking advantage of the weakest in society, and he’s right. The Obama administration was not in favor of legalization. In fact, his drug czar was a person in recovery from addiction and who was very outspoken against legalization, so even the Obama administration was against it. And I just don’t understand why, when there are so many other problems befitting this country and New Jersey right now, we’re dealing with health care, we’re dealing with the housing crisis, we’re dealing with the tax crisis with states like New Jersey not being able to take advantage of the new tax plan, why would marijuana be a top tier issue? It’s kind of hard to understand. I don’t get it.

Aron: You have written a book called “Reefer Sanity,” obviously a take on “Reefer Madness.” What is “Reefer Sanity”?

Sabet: “Reefer Sanity,” my book, is the seven great myths of marijuana. So there’s the myth that it’s not addictive, which for some people marijuana is addictive. Today’s THC, high THC product, can be contributing to mental illness, can be addictive, really a lot of learning problems, there’s a reduction in IQ. And when I think about New Jersey for the future, how do we attract jobs and the 21st century economy if we’re promoting something that essentially reduces IQ, and for anybody that’s smoked some weed, isn’t exactly the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, it’s the opposite.

Aron: Kevin Sabet, thanks very much for giving us your orientation on this tough issue.

Sabet: Thanks so much for having me.