Croton-On-Hudson, N.Y. - On Friday, November 29 New York Assemblywoman Sandra Galef hosted a Town Hall meeting to discuss the pros and cons of legalizing recreational marijuana in New York at the Croton Free Library, in upstate New York.   Speakers on the “con” side of legalization included Kevin Sabet, president, and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and Dr. Thomas Lee, Chief of Neurosurgery at St. John’s Riverside Hospital. Dr. Lee quickly revealed himself as a prohibitionist.

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The “pro” side featured Attorney Cristina Buccola, former General Counsel to High Times and an advisor and advocate in the cannabis space, as well as a member of the New York Cannabis Bar Association. Heather Trela, Chief of Staff and Fellow of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, appeared to be neutral.

NY Assemblywoman Sandy Galef NY Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, 2013
Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin.

The Debate Commences

After a brief introduction by the assemblywoman, Trela discussed the growing dissonance between state and federal marijuana policies. Sabet spoke next. He apparently had reinforcements in the audience. While the vibe was initially fairly friendly, tensions were soon running high, and drama quickly ensued. Halfway through Sabet rattling off his credentials as a three-time former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor,  a man who possibly attended Woodstock crossed the room, flipped Kevin his middle finger and angrily said, “Fuck you. I thought we were here to talk about marijuana, not you,” before storming out.  

Former White House drug policy adviser Kevin Sebet during a town hall meeting at the Hal Holmes Center, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 Brian Myrick / Daily Record
The man’s outburst elicited audible gasps from a mostly demure (or at least civilized) audience; however, polished speaker Sabet quickly recovered. Then he joked that he should be given an additional minute to his allotted speaking time to offset the interruption.

While his main argument consists of citing “regulation in Colorado has its flaws,” Buccola easily countered with “No one is looking at Colorado as a legislative model. They were the first.”

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After the presentations, there appeared to be a “lightning round” Q & A, requiring, “yes,” or “no” answers from all parties. When asked if New York regulations should implement Vermont’s system of legalization, which allows for home grow but not commercial sales, Buccola said, "no" and was not allowed to clarify further by the assemblywoman moderator. Her short answer led some audience members to speculate that she is solely in favor of “Big Marijuana,” and its dangers, as proselytized by Kevin Sabet.

“Had I been afforded the opportunity to clarify, I would have said that I firmly believe that a home grow allowance for adults and patients must absolutely be included in New York's legalization plan, but New York should not adopt a home grow-only system, like in Vermont,” Buccola says.

Legal Cannabis vs. Big Pharma and Big Tobacco

Sabet has some valid concerns about Big Tobacco and Big Pharma taking over the marijuana industry and hooking Americans for profit, regardless of the health detriments.  He paints corporate marijuana as villainous, citing that Purdue Pharma –who malevolently initiated millions of Americans and Canadians into the opioid crisis– are transitioning to the Boards of cannabis companies.

Pharmacist holding medicine box and capsule pack in pharmacy drugstore. iStock/ MJ_Prototype
In response, Buccola said “We need to have micro licenses,” which are craft cannabis licenses. Craft cannabis, locally grown or homegrown marijuana are viable alternatives to Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. Sabet called the concept of having a viable micro license system, and specifically granting licenses to those harmed by the war on drugs, minorities, women or disabled vets, “naive.”

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"It’s not that easy,” Sabet insists. Even if they are given a license, “They need 20 million in startup capital." Sabet made some inaccurate statements about the inability to track marijuana sales, so it is appropriately taxed. Perhaps he is unaware that seed-to-sale compliance and tracking software companies such as MJ Freeway, Treez, and BioTrack exist in all licensed dispensaries.

He also complained that pot is much more potent now than back in the day and therefore wants commercially available cannabis’ THC content to cap at 10%. He extolled 99% THC as an imminent danger to society, likened only in nefariousness to infused gummy bears, with their potential of being the downfall of civilization, as they are too appealing to children.

An Appeal To Parents

Sabet's concern for children resonated with the parents in the audience. A cluster of SAM groupies started enthusiastically bobbing their heads, “like Angry Birds davening,” observed an onlooker.

He managed to concede that drugs like Epidiolex are helpful to children with seizures and he is in favor of more scientific testing and a “slower roll-out,” of legalization. While his concern for children is well played, his concern for communities of color seems wholly disingenuous, according to Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of Drug Policy Alliance.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lee’s most significant participation in the discussion was to describe cannabis as “a hallucinogen,” which drew mostly unintended laughter from the audience. The running joke throughout the event was this - considering both gentlemen attended UC Berkley,  what happened to make their viewpoints so conservative? Dynamic, lively Buccola also joked that she wasn’t yelling her responses, she’s just half-Sicilian.

One thing is clear to anyone in favor of legalization – Kevin clearly puts the Sabet in sabotage. What is less clear, is who funds SAM, which is ironic for a man who advocates for transparency from Big Marijuana. The legalization debate will no doubt continue to roll on in New York, for a long time before New Yorkers can legally roll up.