Over half of all US states now have some form of legal cannabis on the books. Recent polls indicate over 60 percent of all Americans support legalizing cannabis for adult use, and 84 percent support medical use.
We’ve come a long way since Reefer Madness—the movements to make and keep cannabis illegal—started in the 1930s. We saw a second wave of Reefer Madness in the 1970s and 1980s after Nixon declared a War on Drugs, later championed by President Reagan as part of the “Just Say No” campaign.
Today, we’re seeing the third incarnation of Reefer Madness, though it doesn’t have nearly as much traction as it did in years past. In 2016, the federal DARE program removed marijuana from its list of gateway drugs, but a new legion of prohibitionist groups have popped up in its stead. What are these new groups? Who leads them, and why do they oppose marijuana?
Favorite argument: Big Marijuana will become the next Big Tobacco.
SAM tops the list, as it’s probably the most influential group opposing legalization. Founded by former senator Patrick Kennedy (yes, he’s a member of the Kennedy dynasty) and “Dr.” Kevin Sabet (he’s a doctor of political science, don’t let his academic title fool you), SAM relies on a lot of the old fear tactics like “marijuana is addictive” and “marijuana ruins kids,” but they piggy-back heavily off of cannabis’s financial success, too. Sabet and Kennedy claim cannabis companies are poised to become the next “Big Tobacco,” and that these pot companies will chemically treat cannabis—just like cigarettes—to get people hooked, forever.
Of course, there is no Big Marijuana. Sure, there’s chain and franchise dispensaries, but cannabis is no more addictive than caffeine, and no cannabis company has hit the $1 billion mark.
Parents Opposed to Pot (POP)
Favorite argument: Marijuana causes suicides/murders.
Back in the 1930s, during what I call Reefer Madness 1.0, prohibitionists claimed marijuana caused men to turn into ax-wielding homidical maniacs. Those of us in the cannabis community know not a single person has died from cannabis; POP insists otherwise. They cite a handful of cases where someone committed suicide or murder where marijuana may or may not have been involved, and use these as their smoking guns that cannabis does, indeed, lead to deadly violence. Of course, they’ll ignore the little fact that millions of people consume cannabis and never become violent.
Favorite argument: Marijuana increases traffic fatalities.
CALM is based in California, and they oppose both medical and recreational use there. Like the other anti-pot groups, they like to trudge out a lot of old myths, but their favorite is that cannabis will lead to higher healthcare costs because of increased traffic fatalities.
The reality here is that every state with legal cannabis has seen an overall decrease in traffic fatalities, not an increase. Although we can’t definitively prove that marijuana leads to safer driving, the data suggests legal marijuana does not lead to more car accidents. Groups like CALM are exploiting the way the data is interpreted: police now test for marijuana at a higher rate than they did in the past, so yeah, more people are popping up positive for THC after accidents because (inactive) THC stays in the body for weeks if not months at a time.
Favorite argument: Marijuana is like opium/heroin.
SOS, based in Florida, was founded by Calvina Fay, one of the people who pioneered mandatory drug testing in the American workplace. Fay calls herself a “professor,” even though she only has a masters degree—in business administration. SOS likes to compare cannabis to opium or heroin, even though cannabis has nothing in common with opium, and cannabinoids like THC and CBD don’t interact with our opioid receptors.
According to their website, SOS believes “there are components of the marijuana plant that have medical potential. In fact there are cannabis-based medications already approved by the FDA….” One of these FDA-approved drugs is Marinol, which is basically pure THC. THC is also the part of the cannabis plant that gets us high, which groups like SOS claim is incredibly addictive and dangerous. How do they reconcile that gross cognitive dissonance? Beats me.
Why do these groups even exist? We’ve got the science backing our cause. We’re still waiting on clinical trials for cannabinoid therapies, but those are coming soon. From a criminological standpoint, we’ve got data showing legal cannabis doesn’t cause an increase in violent crime. And from an economic standpoint, we know pot is great for tax revenues, tourism, and reduced healthcare costs. So what gives?
For one, there’s a heavy monetary incentive for these prohibitionist groups. They receive donations for their efforts, and they have shady investors, too. Many of these investors are members of law enforcement, and keeping cannabis illegal not only justifies their expenses, but civil asset forfeiture keeps them funded. Many pharmaceutical companies also fear legal cannabis, because it threatens their profits for patented, strictly-controlled drugs.
Second, legalization is a hot news topic. Some of these prohibitionists, like Kevin Sabet, have become quasi-celebrities due to their vocal opposition. Fame is always an incentive to do anything, even if its morally and scientifically incorrect.
Third, there’s still a lot of ignorance out there. Recall that there’s an entire generation of Americans who were saturated in anti-pot propaganda for decades, and it’s difficult for them to assimilate new information, to adapt to a new world view. There’s also the fear that cannabis consumers tend to think outside the box, and as much as American culture claims to value independent thought, in many ways it does not. When people question what they’ve been told for years, it shakes the foundations of society, and challenges the credibility of our authorities.
Now, more than ever, it’s time we set aside ignorance and embrace legalization. We can’t afford to prosecute people for this plant anymore, and we stand to benefit from its regulation far more than we do from keeping it outlawed. With this list, we hope you have a better idea of who are opponents are and how to debunk their arguments, because our fight is far from over.