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An Anti-Cannabis Crusader Ramps Up for the Midterms—and Beyond

Cannabis has had a good run lately. Ten states have legalized since 2012, half of which did so in the last two years, and more than thirty states have allowed some form of medical use. Bills like the STATES Act, a measure that would allow states to implement cannabis legislation without federal interference, have support from both sides of the aisle. As it stands, only a handful of states prohibit cannabis entirely, and that number may soon shrink. Voters in Michigan and North Dakota could legalize adult-use cannabis in November, as voters in Missouri and Utah vote on medical cannabis. According to a Pew Research poll from January of this year, 61% of Americans support legalizing cannabis.

But as the legalization movement grows, bolstered by big-money lobbyists and bipartisan support, so too does the opposition: Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM), the leading anti-cannabis group, is raising an unprecedented amount of money, and using it to fund lobbyists and grassroots opposition activism all over the country. According to 990 filings, SAM raised $36,050 in 2015 for the cause. A year later, according to its most recent filing, that number surged to a whopping $4,550,523.

SAM has two non-profits under its name: The first, SAM Inc., is a 501(c)3 non-profit, and along with that status comes restrictions on political activity. However, SAM Inc. has a political arm called SAM Action, a 501(c)4, which is more active than ever. SAM also has twenty-six affiliate groups in the United States and Canada, which work with SAM on local, on-the-ground efforts. Many of those affiliates are actually alliances with local organizations. For example, the website  for SAM’s Illinois Affiliate, Healthy & Productive Illinois, says it is a “a coalition of individuals and associations” that includes the Illinois Chiefs of Police Association and the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Organization. The organization’s New York affiliate, SAM-NY, opened a new office in Manhattan this summer.

The man behind SAM is Kevin Sabet, a former advisor for the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama administrations. Sabet started SAM in 2013 with Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Ted Kennedy and a former Rhode Island congressman. SAM “envisions a society where marijuana policies are aligned with the scientific understanding of marijuana’s harms, and the commercialization and normalization of marijuana are no more,” according the group’s website.  

SAM has never made public its sources of funding, leading some to speculate that the organization is funded by industries that could stand to lose out if cannabis is legal. But SAM and Sabet deny that they are funded by pharmaceutical companies or the tobacco industry, and according to its site, “SAM is funded by small family foundations (with no interest in the opioid, tobacco, alcohol, or prison industries)” as well as by “individuals affected by drug use and its consequences.” Sabet was willing to disclose two donors to Cannabis Wire: The Achelis and Bodman Foundation and the Anschultz Foundation.

While SAM categorically opposes commercial and recreational cannabis, its position on decriminalization and medical use is more nuanced. According to the website, SAM’s goal is to “reject dichotomies—such as ‘incarceration versus legalization’—that offer only simplistic solutions to the highly complex problems,” and support an approach that “neither legalizes, nor demonizes, marijuana.”

In an interview with Cannabis Wire, Sabet stopped short of explicitly endorsing decriminalization or medical cannabis programs. “We support removing criminal penalties and smart policies, as well as funding research into the components of marijuana,” said Sabet. “We also have given specific policy guidance to congress about properly researching marijuana to lead to FDA-approved medications.”

And the group is claiming momentum. “We are finally keeping the pot industry accountable for the first time,” Sabet told Cannabis Wire. “No state commercialized recreational marijuana so far in 2017 or 2018, despite repeated attempts. We also defeated three dozen pro-pot amendments in Congress this past year: The banking industry was protected from taking illegal proceeds, despite the marijuana industry spending a lot of money to sway politicians.”

In the coming weeks, SAM is particularly focused on Michigan, where voters will decide on Proposal 1, also known as the Marijuana Legalization Initiative. If it passes, Michigan will be the second-largest state to legalize recreational cannabis, second only to California. The initiative would allow adults over the age of twenty-one to possess and use cannabis and grow up to twelve cannabis plants at home. So far, SAM has contributed 99% of the funds raised by the opposition group Healthy and Productive Michigan. The group has raised $277,645 this election cycle, $275,000 of which came from SAM.

SAM and Healthy and Productive Michigan still face stiff opposition. The committee in support of the ballot initiative, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, has far out-raised its opposition, pulling in six times as much as their opponents, for a total of $1,740,845.38 to date. Top donors include the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest pro-cannabis policy organization, as well as MI Legalize, which partnered with Marijuana Policy Project to get the initiative on the ballot.

Josh Hovey, communications director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, has criticisms of the anti-cannabis campaign. “What we’ve found is these groups like Healthy and Productive Michigan are using hype and half-truths in an attempt to scare voters into opposing legalization,” he told Cannabis Wire. “We’re running a fact-based campaign.”  

Healthy and Productive Michigan’s website links to research and reports conducted by other national groups in support of prohibition. One example is a link to a study called “What Will Legal Marijuana Cost Employers?” from National Families in Action, a forty-year-old drug prevention organization. Healthy and Productive Michigan also has a blog, which publishes stories with headlines like “My 16 Year Old Son Died from Marijuana – Don’t Legalize It In November!”—an essay written by a father whose son was involved in a fatal accident after using cannabis.

SAM is active in a number of other states as well, including some where legalization seems imminent.

  • In New Jersey, SAM has ramped up opposition efforts against a bill that would legalize adult-use cannabis. The group hired lobbyist Grace Hanlon, the former executive director of the New Jersey’s Division of Travel and Tourism, and she has lobbied ten state senators and representatives. These include Republican Senator Declan O’Scanlon, who supported the expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program but does not support legalization for recreational use, as well as Democratic Senator Ronald Rice, a former police officer who worked with SAM on legislation that would remove penalties for low-level use, but strongly opposes a recreational program.

    In addition, SAM has focused on New Jersey’s local municipalities and towns, though the extent of its involvement can be difficult to trace; outside of state officials, New Jersey does not require lobbyists to disclose information about lobbying efforts. Still, SAM’s New Jersey subsidiary, Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (NJ-RAMP), has held events in cities, counties, and townships. Two members of the NJ-RAMP advisory board—Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and Linden Councilman Peter Brown—made a TV appearance on USA Today New Jersey, during which they warned viewers that cannabis legalization would be difficult to police and would drain the budget for law enforcement. Whether or not they are attributable to SAM, opposition efforts have been successful on the local level: More than two dozen cities and towns have either banned or plan to ban recreational cannabis.

    The City of Linden is one of those localities, and Linden Councilman Peter Brown is one of Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy’s senior advisors. While an ordinance to ban both recreational and medical cannabis in the city was tabled last month, Brown is leading an effort to amend that ordinance—to ban recreational cannabis alone, which he said passed on the first reading last week. Brown believes that cannabis use is a barrier to good-paying jobs, due to drug testing policies. He believes the tradeoff for cannabis-industry jobs is not a good one. “We’re talking about creating pot jobs, where you have young people standing behind the counter selling pot. As opposed to standing or sitting behind a banker’s desk, or being a police officer, or firefighter,” Brown told  Cannabis Wire.

  • Another major priority for SAM, Sabet told Cannabis Wire, is fighting North Dakota’s Marijuana Legalization and Automatic Expungement Initiative (2018). The initiative, which will be on the ballot in November, would legalize cannabis for adult use and automatically expunge cannabis convictions. There’s only one registered opposition committee to the ballot measure, North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana, but the group has not raised money yet.

    The man behind the opposition committee is Bob Wefald, a former North Dakota attorney general and state district court judge who, after retiring, became the voice of cannabis opposition in the state. The group only formed at the end of August, he said, “so we are clearly behind in what we have to do, and that is to raise money so we can inform the voters as to the many flaws of Measure 3,” Wefald wrote in an email to Cannabis Wire. Wefald says they are “having success in early fundraising efforts” and he  is speaking on talk shows and making TV appearances. “Wefald said the group also plans to work with SAM, which he says is a “member of our coalition.” While it’s uncertain whether Wefald’s committee will get a financial boost from SAM, he said they’ve “been making effective use of statistics SAM provided us from the several states which have legalized marijuana in some quantities and for some purposes.”

  • In Rhode Island, where medical cannabis is legal, and where efforts in support of recreational use have stalled in the legislature, SAM has paid a total of $6,000 in 2017 and 2018 to lobbyist John J. Tassoni in order to oppose two referendums in the House and Senate. The House bill would gauge the level of support for recreational cannabis by way of a ballot question in November, and the Senate bill would fund a study to assess the impact of cannabis use in the state. Tassoni is the host of a show called Recovery Radio, which is about addiction treatment and recovery programs.
  • And in Vermont, where cannabis is already legal, SAM is fighting against the expansion of the industry. In January, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill that legalized low-level possession and home growth for personal use, but did not establish a framework for legal sales. SAM gave $24,192 to lobbyists in the months leading up to the passage of the bill, and has continued to lobby. SAM has spent $12,145 on lobbying there since February of 2018, and has spent a total of $36,337.59 over the last two years.
  • On the medical cannabis front, Sabet told Cannabis Wire that SAM will be active in the opposition fight in Missouri, where voters will decide among three medical cannabis initiatives in November, though it’s unclear whether SAM will form or fund an opposition committee. “At this time, we are not aware of formal anti-cannabis opposition in Missouri,” said Travis Brown, a spokesman for Missourians For Patient Care, the sponsoring committee of one of the initiatives.

SAM is also spending more on the federal level than ever before. Lobbyists are not required to disclose the amount spent on their efforts if the amount does not exceed $5,000, and since its registration with the FEC in January of 2017, SAM had never crossed that threshold. According to the most recently filed reports, however, SAM spent $10,000 on lobbying in the second quarter of 2018.

So what about states that have gone all in on commercial legalization? SAM is trying a new approach with its pilot project in Colorado, called the Marijuana Accountability Coalition. Sabet says the pilot project serves as “a watchdog.” The group has been active online and on the ground: in February, it published a “report card” that gives Colorado a failing grade for cannabis regulation, and last May, CBS Denver reported that volunteers for the Coalition were leaving baby bibs on dispensary doorsteps that read “‘Don’t hurt our future—CO Kids.’” They also left bibs at the governor’s mansion.

If pilot projects like the Marijuana Accountability Coalition are any indication, SAM’s opposition will persist and evolve long after the midterms, not only warning against what legalization might mean in its view, but interpreting, as the first meaningful data emerges from legal states, what it has meant. The Coalition’s massive electronic billboard at a downtown mall in Denver rhetorically asks: “Are you better off than you were 5 years ago?”

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