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Cannabis Legalization’s Biggest Enemies

Meet the drug warriors working to roll back hard-won advances in marijuana policy

David Frum, Gil Kerlikowske, and Michele Leonhart.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The marijuana legalization initiatives that triumphed in Washington and Colorado this past fall faced surprisingly little organized opposition. Money tells the story: Washington’s pro-legalization initiative I-502 raised more than $6 million from supporters, while the campaign against it pulled less than $16,000.  In Colorado, meanwhile, proponents of Amendment 64 raised more than $2 million, outdoing opponents, who raised about half a million. The anti-drug lobbyist groups that came out en masse against California’s legalization initiative Proposition 19 in 2010 were hardly visible in either state, partly because the prison-industrial complex wields less political power there.

So what happens now? The biggest immediate threat to legalization in Washington and Colorado is the federal government, but even the feds might be hard-pressed to stomp out reform. “While there are actions the federal government and its U.S. Attorneys could theoretically take to – in the short term – impede the full implementation of a legal retail cannabis market in Colorado, Washington, and potentially elsewhere, the reality is that federal officials ultimately lack the manpower, public support, and as a consequence, the political will to – in the long term – turn back cannabis legalization,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “The genie is already out of the bottle, and it cannot be put back in.”

But before marijuana legalization spreads from Washington and Colorado to other states, it will have to get past a group of hardened drug warriors, many of whom have developed a personal interest in maintaining prohibition. While most of these ideologues lack the authority to actually change laws, their larger purpose is to maintain the marijuana propaganda machine and push back against pro-legalization rhetoric. Here are the top five people threatening to halt the state-by-state legalization domino effect that many pot activists hope is coming soon:

1.  Kevin Sabet

A former White House advisor and outspoken opponent of legalization, Sabet worked under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations as a political appointee and researcher in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He touts himself as a drug policy reformer, arguing for an approach that does not include arrests but stops short of legalization – leaving many marijuana reform advocates dubious.

Sabet’s new group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, also known as Project SAM, uses clever language to disguise what essentially remains a prohibitionist argument. Advocates of legalization stress that so long as a drug is illegal, arrests will inevitably follow. Semantics aside, Project SAM’s “alternatives” to prohibition simply don’t represent enough of a change to the status quo.  

2. Mel and Betty Sembler

Save Our Society from Drugs, an advocacy group led by these two hardened drug warriors, dumped more than $150,000 into lobbying against Colorado’s recent marijuana legalization initiative, Amendment 64. This was only the latest in a long string of regressive actions by the Semblers.  A staunch conservative who has worked for Mitt Romney, Scooter Libby and George H. W. Bush, Mel Sembler made his money in banking and, at one point, drug treatment. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, he and his wife ran drug treatment centers for adolescents under the name STRAIGHT, Inc. Investigations of their facilities have uncovered disturbing allegations of rape, beatings and intense psychological abuse taking place at the program’s centers. Sembler has done little to respond to these reports, instead touting STRAIGHT’s supposed successes while continuing his anti-drug work under Save Our Society from Drugs. Meanwhile, the Drug Free America Program, Save Our Society’s sister program, has a federal contract to help small businesses develop employee drug-testing programs – which brought it $250,000 in taxpayer dollars in 2010 alone.

3. Michele Leonhart

Employees in what has been called the “arrest and prosecution industry” – from the Drug Enforcement Agency down to local police chiefs and district attorneys – often rely on the drug war not just for their paychecks, but their sense of purpose. As the DEA’s chief administrator, Michele Leonhart is in charge of making sure the fight is on, regardless of where the facts lie. At a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing this June, Leonhart revealed the department’s rigidity when she repeatedly, absurdly refused to acknowledge that marijuana is less harmful than other drugs, like heroin. Video of the exchange between Leonhart and Representative Jared Polis (D-Colorado) quickly went viral. The head of America’s top drug agency simply refused to acknowledge what most Americans accept as simple truth: That different health risks are associated with different substances. Rather than make a fact-based case for DEA policy, Leonhart revealed the great lengths to which her organization will go to avoid conceding any ground.

4. Gil Kerlikowske

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is the current head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which plays a key role in producing anti-marijuana literature and advertisements. Kerlikowske often claims that the Obama administration has reformed America’s drug war, shifting focus to public health rather than prosecution – but funding levels for treatment versus incarceration do not reflect his rhetoric. When it comes to marijuana, Kerlikowske has walked a careful line between diehard prohibitionism and pot policy reform, choosing to chastise legalization one day and acknowledge Americans’ interest in reform the next. “Legalization is not in my vocabulary and it’s not in the president’s,” Kerlikowske once said. More recently, he claimed that even medical marijuana “sends a terrible message” to teenagers – then, the very next day, responded to popular pro-legalization petitions on the White House’s website by acknowledging that “We’re in the midst of a national conversation about marijuana policy.” Which is it?

While operating at a federal level, the ONDCP also has regional branches called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) that hold the potential to meddle in state-based marijuana policy reform. According to the government’s HIDTA website, “The DEA plays a very active role and has 589 authorized special agent positions dedicated to the program.” HIDTA facilitates cooperation and intelligence-sharing among all levels of law enforcement to produce coordinated strategies – a scary thought if you’re a Colorado or Washington citizen who wants to smoke weed as your state’s law allows. With a $238 million budget in grants administered by the ONDCP, the 28 HIDTAs cover 60 percent of the U.S. population. And Amendment 64 activist and Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert says that HIDTA has already been a visible opponent and headache to Amendment 64’s implementation in Colorado.

5. David Frum

Conservative commentator David Frum recently wrote a series of articles decrying legal marijuana as a vice that Americans who already engage heavily in risky behavior cannot afford. Touting a variety of disproved myths about marijuana, Frum has written this month for major outlets including CNN, claiming that legalization will somehow magnify the supposed problems associated with recreational marijuana use. A member of Project SAM, Frum has become the conservative face of the notion that some other alternative to marijuana prohibition – but certainly not legalization – is the best solution.  

While his threat, like many on this list, lies in the arena of public opinion, Frum has the potential to use revamped rhetoric to reignite right-wing opposition to marijuana policy. While acknowledging that the old arguments about being “soft on crime” no longer resonate with Americans who do not want marijuana users to face arrest, Frum is offering anti-pot conservatives new language to fight back against the spread of marijuana legalization. And that’s something we should all be worried about.

In This Article: Cannabis, marijuana


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