Where the people who aren’t stoked about marijuana legalization find their common ground in the marijuana war.

Marijuana used to be a niche activity. It was a thing high school kids did in their parent’s basement or some abandoned parking lot. They dabbled with it in college or at some Phish show. They forgot about it when they got a “real job.” Save for stoners, burnouts and Snoop Dogg, it was a short-lived experience that many left behind with adolescence.

New Weed

That’s not weed today, though. The pot paradigm is shifting. Marijuana users are business professionals and cancer patients, kids with epilepsy and college professors. Dope has come out of the basement and into the mainstream, so much so that America may be moving towards full-fledged legalization. Twenty-nine states allow some form of marijuana use. Eight — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — allow recreational weed. You can even legally light up in view of the White House; District of Columbia voters legalized pot all the way back in 2014 with the passing of Initiative 71. Weed is everywhere.

Map graphic courtesy of Local_Profil

Which is exactly what Kevin Sabet, Ph.D, doesn’t want—but not for the reason you might think. Sabet acted as the Senior Adviser of Drug Policy during the Obama Administration. He also held posts in both the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. In 2013, he co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy. According to the nonprofit’s website, it aims to provide a response not only to the pro-legalization movement, but also to the profitization and commercialization of marijuana.

“We see the growth of marijuana legalization as nothing but a reincarnation of Big Tobacco,” Sabet says. “This can be seen pretty obviously with all of these hedge fund folks and finance guys, mainly young white guys, [who] are interested in making money off this. This has very little to do with marijuana and more to do with money.”

Sabet has a point. In the run up to California’s approval of recreational pot this past August, noted venture capitalists were dumping money behind Proposition 64. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel put $300,000 behind legalization efforts. He also has millions invested in medical marijuana firms. Others, like Silicon Valley hedge fund Benchmark Capital, are betting on the infrastructure to help keep individuals safe, investing $8 million in Hound Labs, an Oakland startup working on a breathalyzer that detects if someone is too high to drive.

It’s all because marijuana has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Retail sales of the sticky-icky totaled $6.5 billion in the last year. By 2021 the market is projected to be worth $30 billion. And with states like Arizona, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont all poised to debate marijuana legalization in 2018—some for the second time—the market is only going to increase. Of course, pot is still illegal on the federal level and the Trump administration has had some big talk about pot, but there hasn’t been a push to stop these state-level bills from passing or to close dispensaries in any state where pot is currently legal.

Which is why organizations like SAM exist. Sabot sees what’s on the horizon — and he’s well aware of the current mood of the country. He understands that pot isn’t a huge priority for most people. In Gallup polls from 2015, 2016 and 2017, marijuana doesn’t even register in the top 20 percent of pressing concerns for US citizens. That said, some 60 percent of Americans favor legalization. So the majority of Americans want to be able to spark up, they just don’t see it as a priority for the country considering everything else that’s going on.

This gives organizations like SAM a chance to influence the narrative. While other anti-legalization organizations talk about the evils of weed — and Sabat has done some of that himself in various op-eds to CNN — SAM has moved away from the traditional script. They focus on the potential influence of money. They talk about potency issues. And they preach how we can decriminalize weed without legalizing it. It’s the kind of approach that helps some of that 60 percent in favor of legalization understand the reason a strong 40 percent are still holding out – though some critics poke plenty of holes in Sabat’s arguments.

The Marijuana Policy Project is a group that, according to their website, envisions a country where “marijuana is legally regulated similarly to alcohol, marijuana education is honest and realistic, and treatment for problem marijuana users is non-coercive and geared toward reducing harm.”

Morgan Fox, the MPP’s interim director of communications, describes the concept of regulation similarly to SAM, but that’s where the similarities end. She contends that MPP has had a different perception of SAM’s mission than what Sabet projects on screen.

“Project SAM claims to support a middle ground between prohibition and making marijuana legal, but have consistently fought against measures to remove criminal penalties for simple possession and are in favor of coercive treatment programs,” Fox says.

MPP favors regulation and legalization. Their mission isn’t to have a pot-utopia where the strongest weed can be sold untaxed — or to create another Big Tobacco.

“MPP’s primary mission is to replace prohibition, which is typified by a total absence of regulation, with a taxed and regulated model similar to how alcohol is controlled,” Fox says.

One Toke Over the Line

While groups both for and against legalization are concerned with marijuana becoming a big money industry, the anti-pot groups also have another concern: how pot has changed. The new age of marijuana allows for growers and manufacturers to cultivate stronger products.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active ingredient in pot that causes the high for the user. For many growers, the goal is to grow plants that contain the highest amount of THC as possible using growing methods such as cross-breeding. This translates into an ability to concentrate the THC and have more yield from each plant. They then either sell the bud or remove its valuable substance and simply sell the pure concentrated form, known as wax or “dabs.” Or they put it into candies or tea, known as “edibles.” What this equals is a more potent product with stronger effects and, as of now, there are no limits on how strong they can be made.

The reason: Since marijuana is illegal according to federal regulations it remains unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The government can’t set any limits. This means today’s weed isn’t the pot your dad used in Grandma’s basement in 1985. It’s a concentrated form of marijuana that is 65-percent pure THC, which can be found inside a gummy bear on the shelves of pot stores in Colorado.

Smart Colorado is an organization that leads the charge in education and the reform of marijuana regulation. Working with both sides of the aisle, Smart Colorado’s main concern is not criminalizing the green substance. Rather, they seek to educate on how the level of potency has changed.

Henny Lasley, a board member of Smart Colorado, handles public relations and media inquiries for the organization. Most of her time is spent working on policy and communication in the state. To her, legalization is a moot point, and she is far more concerned with the notions of big business and zero regulation.

“Our mission is to raise awareness around marijuana products sold in the market that have unintended consequences,” says Lasley. “Potency has increased, but there is no data to show impact on the brain.”

What makes Smart Colorado unique is their mission to simply ensure pot is regulated and to end the correlation between medicinal and recreational. This connection is often what starts the dialogue in states. It begins as a medicinal substance meant to alleviate symptoms of certain diseases. Many states in the Midwest have already gone down that path. Some, like Iowa and Indiana, have started simply by legalizing an over-the-counter, low-dose THC hemp product known as cannabidiol (CBD). Others have accepted marijuana for medical terms, limiting patients to two and a half ounces per two-week period, like Illinois or Minnesota.

Pot’s Final Descent

Then recreational use sneaks its way in with that legislation, or piggybacks off it, and the narrative shifts. In the case of Colorado, it happened almost exactly like that.

“Colorado came out the end of a cannon [with legalization],” Lasley says. “Medical framework [for Colorado] had been talked about for decades as a medicine and a cure for ailments.”

Amendment 64 was passed in Colorado in 2012. It legalized the recreational use of marijuana and seemingly simply stopped there. Without any regulation guidelines, it became something akin to a dystopian free-for-all. Sure, dispensaries sold buds to willing buyers, but many quickly became known for their edibles and THC-infused drinks.

“Protections are still new. We want to raise awareness that the potency level in the marijuana has increased as much as 17 percent,” says Lasley. “Concentrated forms are generally 62 percent. The shops have the ability to sell these products with no limits on potency.”

Those edibles are what SAM and Smart Colorado are truly concerned about, not just for their high-level of potency, but for the lack of information concerning them. And for the potential of THC candies to be attractive to children, who may be more inclined to eat THC than to smoke it.

For either organization, the battle isn’t one where there’s a clear winner. It’s not a matter of simply making pot illegal because it’s wrong or immoral. To them, it is a matter of providing a check to a system that’s lacking oversight.

“Today it’s very different. There is much higher THC strength, with waxes and dabs that can be 99-percent potent,” Sabet says. “There’s a brand new industry that wants to make money and we should be very wary of another legal drug industry that wants to make money off a drug that can be harmful for some people.”