This year's midterm elections are just around the corner, and voters in several states will get the opportunity to decide the fate of cannabis reform on their home turf. Ballot measures to legalize full adult-use and sales will come up for a vote in Michigan and North Dakota this November, while residents of Missouri and Utah will vote on medical marijuana initiatives. Meanwhile, lawmakers in New Jersey and New York are currently drafting bills to create regulated adult-use markets for marijuana.
Although recent polls have found that a growing majority of Americans are fully in favor of cannabis legalization, the minority who do oppose reform are becoming increasingly vocal. Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), one of the largest anti-cannabis lobbying groups in the country, has recently ramped up its lobbying efforts in an attempt to drum up opposition to many of the legalization measures being considered this year, Cannabis Wire reports.
SAM was launched in 2013 by Kevin Sabet — a former adviser to the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy from the Clinton administration through the Obama years — and former congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of late Senator Ted Kennedy. The organization has significantly grown since its inception, raising over $4.5 million in funds in 2016. The fact that SAM has not publicly listed its donors has led many to speculate that financing is coming from industries with a vested interest in seeing cannabis reform fail, but the group's website claims that it “is funded by small family foundations (with no interest in the opioid, tobacco, alcohol, or prison industries).”
SAM has continued its war on cannabis this year, launching fresh chapters in several states currently considering legalization. Sabet and company are primarily concentrating their efforts in Michigan, where a ballot measure to legalize recreational pot has a good chance of receiving popular approval. Attempting to turn the tide in its favor, SAM launched an opposition group, Healthy and Productive Michigan, which has raised $277,645 to challenge the ballot measure — $275,000 of which came directly from SAM's umbrella organization.
Recent polls have found that around 57% of Michigan voters are in favor of legalization, but SAM is hoping voters will change their minds ahead of Election Day. “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,” Josh Hovey, communications director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (the group that organized November’s ballot measure), told Cannabis Wire. “We’re running a fact-based campaign.”
In North Dakota, this year's midterm election gives voters a chance to pass a very progressive legalization initiative. If successful, the measure will allow any adult to grow, possess, or even sell as much weed as they choose, as well as allowing former offenders to expunge their criminal records. North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana, the group that has officially registered to oppose the measure, said that they plan to work with SAM, but have not been able to raise any anti-cannabis funding as of press time.
Sabet is also accelerating his group's lobbying efforts in New Jersey, where lawmakers are close to finalizing a recreational legalization bill. SAM hired a local lobbyist to put pressure on several state lawmakers to oppose the bill, and is also working to foster opposition in individual municipalities — some of which have already passed local ordinances banning pot businesses from their towns. The groups' efforts even extend to Vermont, where adult cannabis use is legal, but sales are prohibited. Cannabis Wire found that SAM has given nearly $25,000 to lobbyists to oppose a bill that would allow taxed and regulated retail sales.
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In addition to state-level efforts, SAM is also working to convince Congress not to back down on the federal prohibition of cannabis. Last year, the group urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the Cole Memo — an Obama-era guidance protecting state-legal cannabis industries from federal prosecution ― which Sessions did in January. The group also advocated against Sen. Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act, making the absurd claim that legal weed would hurt African-American communities more than prohibition has.
Last year, Sabet wrote an op-ed for CNBC using outdated statistics and scare tactics to convince Americans that legal weed is still a dangerous idea. But despite all of SAM's efforts to keep the government's war on marijuana in full effect, an increasing number of Americans are coming out in favor of cannabis reform. In January, a Pew Research Center poll found that over 60% of respondents supported recreational legalization, and in June, a poll by the Center for American Progress found that close to 70% of Americans support legal weed.