Tensions were high in DPAC as two experts debated Massachusetts marijuana laws on April 24.
The debate was sponsored by the Health and Wellness Center and the Dean’s office. It was moderated by Coordinator of Alcohol and Drug Education Joy LaGrutta.
“Sometimes the greatest opportunities come from hearing opposing perspectives,” LaGrutta said.
Arguing against marijuana was Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy advisor and founder and director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Aaron Houston argued in favor of legalization. He co-founded Marijuana Majority, and wrote a handful of laws regarding marijuana, specifically in Colorado.
LaGrutta said there are nine states in which recreational marijuana is legal and 29 that allow medical marijuana. However, federally, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug. The FDA defines a Schedule I drug as one with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
The debate was divided into a set of 15-minute opening remarks from each side, followed by two 5-minute rebuttals. The representatives then took turns responding to audience questions.
In his opening remarks, the denim-clad Houston joked about the way he and his opponent were dressed. “I guess you all can tell by our respective attire tonight who’s the marijuana legalizer and who’s not.”
Sabet wore a button-up shirt and a blazer.
Houston went on to assure the audience that he was “not going to load you up with statistics.”
The crux of Houston’s opening statement was the fact that “we are locking human beings in cages for a plant that grows in the ground,” a sentiment he repeated throughout this portion of the debate. He called it “a moral outrage.”
He said in his experience he has observed that officials fall on either extreme of the debate – there are very few people in the middle.
However, he confidently said, when it comes to marijuana policy, “I’m right.”
In his opening remarks, Sabet urged those in the audience to “do your own research… come to your own conclusion.”
He said there is a “false dichotomy” when it comes to marijuana. He emphasized that he agrees with Houston when it comes to incarceration for possession. However, he said those arrested for marijuana-related charges should seek help.
Sabet also claimed the marijuana lobbies “manipulate search results” in order to propel their cause, to which Houston replied, “You give us too much credit,” laughing.
The main focus of Sabet’s argument was the commercialization of marijuana. He said he’s afraid it’s mirroring that of the tobacco, pharmaceutical and alcohol industries. “Do we want another industry like prescription drugs or alcohol?
“Legal pot shops aren’t in upper-class white communities,” he said.
He added older white men will profit off of lower-class minority communities.
In his first rebuttal, Houston said that D.C.’s “grow and gift” laws create “zero commercialization.”
In Washington, D.C., it is legal to grow marijuana in limited quantities and gift it to friends and family.
“There are a few people trying to make money off of gifting. They’re getting arrested, though – so, the law is working as it should,” Houston said.
He added, home-growing marijuana will “alleviate exactly what [Sabet is] talking about… a commercial industry.”
Sabet rebutted by saying D.C. law goes much further than current Massachusetts legislation, but it’s still “a heck of a lot better than commercialization.”
He also added that the use of marijuana should be restricted based on whether it’s in public, the user’s age, if they’re around children, if they’re driving while high, if they’re at work.
“There are so many contexts,” he said.
An audience member asked about the benefits of medical marijuana use.
Houston said, “It’s a highly individualized thing. Every body is different.” He spoke about a woman he worked with who has fibromyalgia. Marijuana curbed her pain and she fought to make medical use legal on the federal level.
Sabet responded, “If this is about medical use, why didn’t the law stop at medical use? For those people who need it for medical reasons: God bless them. I want them to get better – if methamphetamine helps them, give it to them.”
Sabet’s argument kept coming around to the commercialization of marijuana, especially edibles. He worries that colorfully wrapped THC-infused candies would attract a younger audience.
He said children could also accidentally consume an edible form of THC and need emergency medical treatment.
While Houston agreed that enticing younger demographics is a bad thing, marijuana dispensaries don’t market to children.
Underage people aren’t allowed in and are often carded at the door.
Houston also added, the only alternative to commercialization and legal pot stores is the black market.
Senior Logan Hennessy said Sabet’s “argument about how kids can pick up edibles off the ground and then have to be transported to the emergency room” was a bit far-fetched. “What stops a child from going into the fridge of their home and cracking open a beer? The fact that he believes that the marijuana industry is trying to appeal to children because gummi bears are ‘colorful’ is laughable.
Another student asked the professionals about addiction to marijuana.
Again, Sabet compared the situation to alcohol. He said, “Ten times more people drink than use any illegal drug.” He added once the substance becomes more openly available, more people will develop addictions to the substance.
Houston said he believes marijuana has the potential to be psychologically addictive, but in no way physically addictive, to which Sabet replied both types of addiction should be treated equally.
When asked about low-income people being allowed access to medical marijuana, Sabet said it should “be regulated like all other medications. … I have zero problem with that, but of course, they could still be abused.”
He went on to say that the real issue is “businessmen, not pharmacists.”
In Houston’s response, he accused Sabet of being “pro-pharma,” and said putting big pharmaceutical companies in charge of marijuana would be a “big problem.”
In his closing statement, Sabet again pushed those in attendance to do their own research and reach their own informed opinions.
In Houston’s final remarks, he urged Sabet to reconsider his opinion that marijuana users should be sent to “treatment centers,” as many have been linked to human trafficking rings.