Ex-drug policy adviser: Marijuana legalization push is 'about a small number of people who want to get rich'

A former three-time White House drug policy adviser is warning against the rush to the legalize marijuana, saying the nationwide push is being primarily driven by the cannabis industry and a small group of billionaires.

“The drive to legalize is being driven by a massive industry with billionaire-backers and they need high levels of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] to make money,” Kevin Sabet said in an interview that aired Friday. 

“Let’s be honest about the push to legalize — it’s not about social justice, it’s not about medicine, it’s not about granny with cancer, it is about a small number of people who want to get very rich," he added.

Sabet previously served as a White House adviser for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He’s now the president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a nonprofit organization he founded with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and political commentator David Frum.

He warned that today’s marijuana has “all kinds of issues,” saying that the new marijuana is being genetically bred to have “astronomical levels of THC."

“Edibles — these candies, cookies — these are very, very different than the old 6 percent THC,” Sabet said. “We’re talking in some cases 99.9 percent purity, which would have been totally unheard of 10 years ago.”

He added that the rise of THC levels could have a potential impact on the mental health, citing a recent study conducted by SAM.

“We’re seeing an increase in mental issues, specifically psychosis, schizophrenia — a direct link maybe even a casualty, which is something that scientists hesitate to even use that word for anything, but we’re starting to use it for marijuana,” Sabet told Hill.TV.

Advocacy groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) say they're working to assure that consumers have access to high quality marijuana that is "safe, convenient and affordable."

"Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco," NORML says on its website. "Around 50,000 people die each year from alcohol poisoning. Similarly, more than 400,000 deaths each year are attributed to tobacco smoking. By comparison, marijuana is nontoxic and cannot cause death by overdose."

Sabet’s comments come amid unprecedented levels of public support for marijuana legalization.

More than 60 percent of Americans say the use of recreational marijuana should be legalized, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.

The drug has already been legalized in 11 states and the District of Columbia, and in February, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker takes swipe at Biden criminal justice reform plan Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission Biden announces plan to counteract mass incarceration MORE (D-N.J.) introduced a new bill that would make the drug legal on federal level. Several of his fellow 2020 White House contenders, including Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (D-Mass.), have co-sponsored the legislation. 

Booker said he hopes the marijuana bill will help reverse decades of unjust policies and mass incarceration due to marijuana-related offenses.

“The Marijuana Justice Act seeks to reverse decades of this unfair, unjust, and failed policy by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances and making it legal at the federal level,” he said at the time.

—Tess Bonn