An anti marijuana group fights to keep cannabis illegal

Chameleons in Our Midst: The Evolution of America’s Anti-Marijuana Lobby

The anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana has spent the past several years fighting a losing battle trying to keep cannabis illegal. But with that battle lost and public opinion changing and the large war chests of pro-marijuana groups against them, Smart Approaches to Marijuana is now rebranding their fight. They are hoping to put caps on the levels of THC in marijuana products, and some of the potency caps are startlingly low.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, has a few tactical advantages in this battle: They have loyal donors and an existing infrastructure of anti-pot groups in states where local legislation might affect the cannabis industry. 

Adapting to Survive or to Deceive?

Even with Washington inaction sustaining the status quo of federal prohibition, pro-pot advocates kept racking up wins in red and blue states alike. And cannabis became inevitable — at least according to national polls, where the issue isn’t even a debate, with some 90% of Americans telling PEW this spring they’re now fine with legalizing either medicinal or recreational cannabis. In recent years, as marijuana legalization rapidly became a non-issue, the old arguments became meaningless. Thus SAM deftly morphed. 

“You have to adapt to survive in this world, in many ways, and I’ve just done that in all domains of my life, which is just kind of  how I am,” Kevin Sabet, the group’s president and CEO, told The News Station. “You have to, you know, understand what new realities are. You have to be able to adapt to things.” 

“We don’t just put our heads in the sand and let Rome burn…that’s when we start taking those calls from the Democrats and hitting the phones and talking to different people.”

Kevin Sabet of SAM

Back in 2013, Rolling Stone dubbed Sabet legalization’s No. 1 enemy, because, they wrote, he “uses clever language to disguise what essentially remains a prohibitionist argument.” These days, Sabet — who still relies on the same argument Rolling Stone found tired some eight years ago — said he’s torn on whether or not cannabis should be legalized. 

Still, there’s no gray area when it comes to maintaining the prohibition on marijuana. Sabet is America’s prohibitionist-in-chief, after all.  

“The mission of SAM is not to defeat legalization and to have wins and losses on legalization. The mission of SAM is to get the science out, correct misinformation, help prevent tragedy, basically,” Sabet said. “And so, yes, when marijuana is not legalized we think that is a lot easier — a lot easier. And that’s why that’s one of the concrete things we can do to make it a lot easier, we can stop legalization in places, which we’ve had mixed success on.” 

As The News Station told Sabet in our interview, he and SAM behave like chameleons — and not necessarily in the negative sense of the term. Those little lizards are still around because they’re masters of adaptation.   

Like those prehistoric reptiles, when SAM loses a local battle against legalization, the organization blends into its surroundings, watches and patiently waits for the moment to strike. 

“We don’t just put our heads in the sand and let Rome burn. We say, ‘alright, well that didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean our whole mission’s out the door.’ It means that we’ve got to work a lot harder,” Sabet said, “and that’s when we start taking those calls from the Democrats and hitting the phones and talking to different people.”   

SAM’s no longer beating the drums of war in the legalization battle. They recognize it’s useless. Their evolution has transformed them — at least in their minds — into the underdog. 

“We’re one of the few groups, I think, that have the guts to stand in the middle of the arena and talk about this,” Sabet said. 

Instead of joining the public in embracing cannabis, they stopped devoting resources and energy against the inevitable and created a new front in the fight, one that didn’t exist a few years back. 

They innocuously started in Vermont, where just last year they convinced legislators to cap the amount of THC in marijuana products. It worked, and potency caps became the potent weapon the anti-marijuana lobby had been clamoring to invent for years.  

They’re now in state legislatures, the opinion pages of the New York Times, countless Democrats‘ ears and on Fox Newsmax playing concerned citizens. Their transformation came without fanfare — just talking points.  

Quiet but Always in the Shadows

SAM last came into the national conversation in 2018, after cannabis blog Freedom Leaf reported billionaire Philip Anschutz donated to SAM. Anschutz’s status as a major donor was in the spotlight because he also owns the company that puts on the Coachella Music Festival. In 2018 and again in 2019, marijuana was banned at Coachella despite it already being legal in California. The 2018 report cited Anschutz’s donations as recently as 2016, but a deep-dive by The News Station found The Anschutz Foundation pumped $100,000 into SAM in 2018 as well. Anschutz is a major player in conservative politics and owns the right-wing online publication The Washington Examiner.

Though they claim to be “grassroots,” the IRS filings for SAM filings hardly paint the picture of a bottom-up group (and SAM is listed as a 501 (c) (3), though its conjoined twin sister SAM Action is a 501 (c) (4), which are regularly deployed in politics to avoid transparency). 

In 2016, they reported contributions of $2.69 million in publicly traded securities. In 2017, SAM reported having a whopping  $3.79 million in stock tucked across the border in the Bank of Montreal. In the same year, SAM reported receiving donations of $1.8 million in publicly traded securities. 

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With millions of dollars now readily at their disposal, in a phone interview with SAM’s Sabet, The News Station remarked how SAM is now “flush with money.”   

“Yeah,” Sabet agreed.

Moments later, he abruptly stopped himself. 

“I don’t know if I’d say flush with money,” Sabet interjected. 

He maintains SAM is merely using its resources to alert like-minded folks nationwide they’re here to stay. That they mostly spend their cash reserves on targeted social media ads — a low-budget way to make a hyper-local, national and personal bang.  

“I learned in the early days of Berkeley that you can do things that make yourself sort of look a lot bigger than you are and that can be a strength,” Sabet continued, “but we’re definitely not flush with money. I wish we were. I wish that was a problem.”

SAM Funded by Anti-LGBTQ, Pro-Fentanyl Groups

A News Station data search also found SAM received $100,000 in 2017 and again in 2018 from the Psalm 103 Foundation, a group bankrolled by the anti-gay marriage pastor John M. Templeton Jr., who spent $1 million fighting gay marriage in California. Though Templeton died in 2015 (and tons of new, positive research on cannabis took place in the ensuing years), he’s still fighting legal pot from the grave: in 2017 Templeton gave $4.28 million to the Psalm 103 Foundation. 

Smart Approaches to Marijuana used the cash to fight state-level battles against cannabis. In 2016, they notched a victory in Arizona, when they fought a well-funded battle against legalization on the ballot. 

“He’s just trying to pivot his talking points to try to survive.”

Morgan Fox

One of the companies behind the battle against legalizing marijuana in Arizona was Insys Pharmaceuticals, which dumped $500,000 into the eventually successful effort. Insys, which manufactures fentanyl, hoped to keep marijuana illegal while they developed a drug using synthetic THC to treat AIDS and cancer patients, as noted by The Washington Post.

SAM is willing to spend heavily fighting against marijuana normalization, even if most of those battles have failed. In 2018, they pumped $1.3 million into Michigan — the preemptive war failed, cannabis made the ballot and with 55% of the vote, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize cannabis. But SAM’s real power — even as most pro-cannabis advocates pretend they’re powerless — lies in their wide network of state-level organizations. On their website, the group boasts of having affiliates in 26 states, along with our neighbors in Canada. In Illinois they teamed up with the local NAACP chapter to oppose legalization, even as the national NAACP has endorsed marijuana legalization. This year SAM’s influence was also on display in Colorado, Washington state and Florida, where pro-marijuana lawmakers and advocates beat back efforts to implement potency caps. 

Marijuana, in many respects, stopped even being a debate for a few years. The only debate in many states became whether to even allow voters to see a cannabis question on their ballots, because when it made the ballot — in, say, Mississippi, South Dakota or Montana — there was no debate: Voters wanted weed. In legislative chambers, including the United States Capitol, the only debate was whether party leaders would allow a debate on the plant. 

Old-school tacticians like former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t dare let cannabis see the light of day. Even Cocaine Mitch knows not to crush the wills of his GOP base in Kentucky. 

You don’t have to be a master tactician to know not to mess with 90% of your local Republican base (along with 95% of Democrats and 92% of Independents) when they want a substance legalized for medicinal purposes, even as only some 33% of voters in the state can stand you. Hence, McConnell never brought marijuana to the floor and opted to wag a few dogs instead.  

And so the fight has been rebranded. With the legalization war lost, the new battle has become one over potency limits. Vermont already has a limit on the levels of THC in marijuana products and a 30% cap on flower, though there is no limit on medical marijuana in the state. Several state legislatures have seen potency cap bills; one Florida proposal aims to cap flower at only 10% THC. 

In a recent conversation, Sabet told The News Station SAM’s state-level efforts have been mostly word-of-mouth, but effective nonetheless. 

“A California Democratic state rep, who’s in like one of the most liberal districts in the country,” Sabet claimed, “would call us and say ‘talk to me about potency. What do you mean we don’t have a potency limit in California? What do you mean people can buy concentrates and dabs? What is that?’”

Of course, SAM and other prohibitionist groups are outmatched by the lobbying efforts of the cannabis industry, which is already a booming business in many states and is becoming larger as companies prepare to expand. Most in the industry don’t want to provide any oxygen to SAM, though they all keep an eye on Sabet. That’s why these new talking points are lost on industry folks — they’ve all battled SAM at the ballot box, where the group has consistently fought efforts to decriminalize marijuana.  

“He’s just trying to pivot his talking points to try to survive,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told The News Station. “This group keeps talking about how they support decriminalization, but I have yet to see a pure decrim. bill at the state or federal level that they’ve publicly supported, and they’ve actively campaigned against most of them.” 

As for SAM’s new effort to cap the potency of marijuana, Fox says it reveals SAM and Sabet’s true mission: maintaining the status quo of the ‘war on drugs.’  

“Instituting potency caps will not prevent people from consuming the very same total amount of THC from regulated products, but it will negatively impact medical cannabis patients who rely on higher-potency cannabis products,” Fox said, “and will also drive the very popular adult use market for such products entirely underground, where there is zero oversight, regulatory controls, or accountability.”

The Florida measure to slap a 10% cap on marijuana flower was accompanied by a flurry of lobbying efforts from cannabis companies. But the fight to keep potency caps has only begun to be waged. And unlike many of the contemporary policy discussions around pot, this is a state-level issue. Though the future of cannabis seems to bend toward old American open-market capitalism, you can be sure SAM will still be around to fight against it.

Alex Thomas is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's been a Washington Political Columnist for Playboy and has frequently discussed his writing on MSNBC. He previously wrote for Death + Taxes before the website was absorbed into SPIN. His full bio, including information on his poetry, is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Alex Thomas is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's been a Washington Political Columnist for Playboy and has frequently discussed his writing on MSNBC. He previously wrote for Death + Taxes before the website was absorbed into SPIN. His full bio, including information on his poetry, is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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