Marijuana presentation at Neuqua raises questions about legalization

Lars Lonnroth, Assistant News Editor

NAPERVILLE, Ill.—In the debate over the legalization of marijuana, former White House Advisor on Drug Policy Kevin Sabet is ardently opposed to the growing efforts to legalize the drug. In the Neuqua Valley High School auditorium on Sept. 28, Sabet implored an audience of parents, students and the Naperville community to reconsider the legalization efforts.

“Young people need to know that their brains are essentially dollar signs right now by an industry that wants to get rich off them,” Sabet said. “Their parents’ generation were duped by tobacco; the question is will we be duped by marijuana.”

On a wider scale, the effort to legalize medical and recreational marijuana has been gaining popularity in state governments nationwide—with more and more states decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana—as more of the public perceives it as a potential solution to a plethora of problems, while having no repercussions if enacted.

In Illinois’ General Assembly, state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) have both authored bills that aim to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Illinois (marijuana was legalized for medical use in Illinois in 2013). Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey came out in support for the legalization of marijuana on Oct. 4, pointing to the projected $350 to $700 million that it would bring in for a state grappling with immense financial woes.

In his presentation, however, Sabet said that the idea there would be no repercussion if marijuana is legalized is false and that the public is being sold something that’s too good to be true.

“Marijuana is claimed to be the answer to cancer, budget deficits and Mexican drug cartels,” Sabet said. “Anything that claims to solve all those problems we should be skeptical of.”

While many supporters argue that legalization gives the government the ability to regulate the industry, Sabet claimed the United State’s history of regulating the drug industry is complicated.

“I’m not confident that we’re going to be able to regulate this in a safe way and get all of the benefits that are being claimed,” Sabet said, pointing to prescription drugs, alcohol and other legalized drugs where he claims regulation has been more lax.

Gabriel Mendoza, secretary of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), argued that this is untrue and its illegality does more harm than good.

“If you look at anything that has been made illegal and tried to be banned—just look at the parallels between prohibition—it is only going to continue to put this inside the hands of an unregulated market where we are unsure of where the product comes from,” Mendoza said. “We need to regulate it and make sure it is used responsibly.”

Many of those pushing to legalize marijuana for recreational use agree that regulation is important, but also argue consumers need to be responsible in their use and storage of marijuana.

“We would expect that adults, in the same way they would lock up their liquor cabinets, would be responsible and lock up their products,” said Rose Ashby, state field director for both of the politicians pushing legislation in the Illinois General Assembly. “You cannot control what an adult does inside their homes, but [you] can have penalties for [allowing it to get in the hands of minors.]”

Marijuana is safer than alcohol, Ashby claims, and it should be legal for those of age to use while simultaneously raising much-needed revenue for the state.

“Everyone over the age of 21, just like they can drink, should be able to use a product that on its face is less addictive, less harmful and associated with crime and less aggression,” Ashby said. “It is, on its face, less harmful than alcohol—and that is our point.”

Sabet argues the bar shouldn’t be whether marijuana is safer than alcohol as he questions if “alcohol is legal because it is safe or is it legal because it has been in our culture for a long time” and “if we were to go back in time, would we legalize these drugs.”

“I’m trying to get out a message that is based on the evidence [and] really have people stop and think for a minute and think if we really want to go down the path of legalization the way we did with tobacco and alcohol that have had disastrous implications,” Sabet said.

He added that: “It may take five, 50 or 100 years for people to realize this is the wrong way, but it will happen at some point. We just don’t want it to happen like it did with tobacco where we had to have 500,000 people a year dead for the last 80 years until we woke up.”

Bob McBride, Principal at Neuqua Valley, said it was a good opportunity to promote conversation about marijuana and analyze the issue.

“Anytime you have an opportunity to think through the consequences and implications of something that could happen,” he said, “you should think that through.”