What D.A.R.E. Didn't Teach You About the Effects of Marijuana

This article is the final segment of a three-part interview with Dr. Kevin Sabet, a leading voice against drug legalization in the United States and co-founder of Project SAM (Smarter Approaches to Marijuana). Check out Part One and Part Two if you haven’t already!

Distortion of time, bloodshot eyes, a sudden craving for Cheetos, and a new-found appreciation of Bob Marley—the short-term effects of smoking weed are well-established in American culture. Much less widely understood, however, are the drug’s long-term effects.

Although opinions differ, the scientific community has remained cautious about marijuana. “Heavy marijuana users generally report lower life satisfaction, poorer mental and physical health, relationship problems, and less academic and career success compared to their peers who came from similar backgrounds,” warns the National Institutes of Health.

Recently, the American Medical Association (AMA) released a statement reaffirming its opposition to marijuana legalization, stating, “cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern.” The AMA report followed a provisional statement by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that concluded, “current evidence supports, at minimum, a strong association of cannabis use with the onset of psychiatric disorders.”

At the same time, however, the AMA declared that “federal efforts to address illicit drug use via supply reduction have been ineffective” and advised the U.S. government to “expand the availability and reduce the cost of treatment programs for substance use disorders, including addiction.”

The AMA’s position on marijuana echoes that of Project SAM (Smarter Approaches to Marijuana), an advocacy group that calls for U.S. drug policy reform, yet strongly opposes the legalization of marijuana. I spoke with Kevin Sabet, Ph.D, co-founder of Project SAM, about the health hazards of marijuana and the need for better science-based drug education and treatment programs.

Gabe Grand: How can we best deal with the health problems of drug abuse?

Kevin Sabet: We need a public health campaign that addresses the myth of marijuana being harmless. There might be a debate on the pages of websites and different media, but it is not a debate in the scientific community; marijuana addiction is a fact. It is not a debate that marijuana impairs driving; that is a fact. It is not a debate that marijuana harms the adolescent brain; that is a fact.

However, there is a huge movement that is simply discrediting all that, and they have the megaphone. Meanwhile, the medical organizations that think otherwise have a much tinier megaphone.

Megaphone in hand, what would you like to say?

This is not your Woodstock weed; this isn’t the weed that our parents smoked in their dorms in the 60s and 70s. It’s five to six times stronger, it has effects that we haven’t seen in terms of inducing panic attacks and sending people to the E.R. Marijuana brownies are also a huge hazard for our kids. Millennials are starting to have kids, and if our kids get their hands on a 30% THC brownie, they’re going to go to the E.R., and that’s a real problem. These kinds of things need to be addressed in a public health message on a scale that we haven’t seen before.

What do you think about our current prevention-based drug education programs?

Things like D.A.R.E. and other “just say no” drug education programs aren’t the answer for our communities right now. Science-based drug prevention education is the answer.

With every single restriction that we have today on public smoking—and really, even private smoking, too—a quarter of Americans still smoke cigarettes.* About 8 percent use marijuana. Despite the fact that we have a huge societal disdain for smoking, and even with restrictions, we’re still going to have a lot of smokers.

*Editor’s note: According to the latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 19% of Americans ages 18 and up smoke cigarettes. The exact percentage of American youth who smoke is not known.

Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana last year. Is there anything that we’re seeing in in those states post-legalization that concerns you?

We’re already seeing the early signs of how this is not going well. First of all, we’ve seen a huge rise [since the legalization vote] of marijuana impaired drivers in Washington. In Colorado, we’re seeing a huge rise in schools that refer students to treatment after drug testing. So certainly, people are getting the idea that this is full-throttle, and we’re definitely already seeing the negative effects.

Source: Project SAM

Regardless of the health dangers of marijuana, a recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans favor legalization. You argue that we should be skeptical of those results. Why?

There’s no doubt that legalization has gained momentum in the last ten years; I don’t think anyone’s disputing that. But one of the tactics of the legalization movement is to create this air of inevitability; to say that everyone is on their side, including time. They imply that if you’re not on their side, you’re with the backwards-thinking neanderthals. They’ll grab on to singular polls, like this Gallup poll, which seems to be an anomaly when compared to other, more reliable polls like the General Social Survey (GSS). (Editor’s note: the GSS poll found that 52 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization.)

The other issue with the Gallup poll is that people were asked what they thought about marijuana use, not about retail marijuana sales. I’m waiting for the polls to ask Americans if they think that the legalization and promotion of retail commercial marijuana sales is something they agree with. That would be a more accurate description of the debate we’re having. I also think millennials know that you can get a poll answer to say whatever you want it to.

Do you think marijuana can be used for medical purposes, or are you skeptical about that?

Marijuana contains medicinal properties. The question is how we deliver those medicinal properties. We don’t ask people to smoke opium or inject heroin to get the effects of morphine. Why would we ask them to smoke raw herbal marijuana to get any positive effects it might have?

I also don’t think it’s very compassionate to tell people that are dying of a debilitating illness that their only option is to skip the pharmacy and go to the shady part of town to talk to a 25-year-old kid with no medical background who’s selling them something called “green crack.” What is compassionate is putting together components of marijuana to be delivered in a non-smoked form like a mouth spray, an injection, or whatever method that medical science deems appropriate. But I’ll leave that part to the lab scientists and the researchers.

Does Project SAM advocate for laws that would mandate drug rehabilitation for certain people?

The term “mandatory rehab” has been falsely attributed to us. We don’t advocate for mandatory rehab for everybody. I think for those with a chronic disorder, if their choice is jail or mandatory rehab, then yes, they should go to rehab. Do we advocate for things like drug courts and Project HOPE, which are very successful at getting people on the right track? Yes.

Why is it that there are so few anti-legalization voices in the online drug policy debate?

I think there are few anti-legalization voices sitting around on their computer all day making 12 aliases every minute and commenting on articles. There are a lot of voices for anti-legalization, but they’re not doing that—they make one comment, maybe. They’re doctors, physicians, and policy makers; not internet trolls.

This three-part interview with Dr. Kevin Sabet is part of a series of PolicyMic discussions with leading advocates and experts on both sides of the drug policy debate. To hear the perspective of marijuana legalization advocate, read Gabe Grand’s interview with Dr. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, titled, “Why Marijuana Legalization is About So Much More than Smoking Weed.”