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Anti-drug advocate argues for 'reefer sanity' in Utah

Published February 8, 2014 9:52 pm

Marijuana • Drug policy expert says opening borders to cannabis oil a bad idea.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An outspoken opponent of legalizing marijuana visited Utah on Friday to urge lawmakers to put the brakes on a bill that would give epileptic children access to nonintoxicating cannabis oils.

"These parents are not part of the marijuana movement. They are very good parents in a desperate situation. My heart goes out to them," said Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

But as a matter of policy, "there's a better and safer route" for them to get the medication they need, he said, referring to an investigational trial of GW Pharmaceuticals' Epidiolex, pharmaceutical-grade cannabidiol.

Known as CBD, cannabidiol is a non-psychoactive chemical in cannabis shown to have anti-seizure properties.

To open Utah's borders to cannabis — no matter how high in CBD or low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces a high in users — may not help and could harm families desperate for medical solutions, Sabet argues.

He recommends that lawmakers, instead, pass a resolution urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to speed approval of Epidiolex.

Health professionals can already apply with the drugmaker to run clinical trials. Each site can take up to 25 patients who, for the duration of the trial, receive Epidiolex for free, he said.

Utah parents pushing for CBD oil for their children are wary of the "there's a drug for that" argument.

They say they've failed to persuade local hospitals to start trials, which don't guarantee access because FDA trials require some participants to be given placebos.

It could take years for the drug to come to market, they say, and when it does, it may be prohibitively expensive.

But Sabet counters that whole-plant CBD oils, like the highly touted Charlotte's Web produced by the Stanley brothers, Colorado-based pot growers, aren't cheap. There's a growing waiting list for the product, which means it's not readily available either, and there's no independent quality control to ensure it's safe for kids, he said.

Sabet, a leading national spokesman for the anti-drug movement, also spoke Friday to a gathering of cops and addiction-treatment experts at the annual conference of the Utah Council for Crime Prevention.

While not opposed to easing criminal penalties for marijuana possession, he warned legalizing the drug — even just for medical use — would "normalize" pot, hook more youths and serve only to line the pockets of a powerful marijuana industry.

"I'm not in favor of the status quo," he said. "But what I don't like is when people take advantage of people in desperate situations, and unfortunately the wider legalization movement has been doing that. It was cancer patients 10 years ago. Now it's kids with epilepsy."

Contrary to popular opinion, marijuana is addictive and dangerous, Sabet said. It's potency has tripled in the past 15 years, he said.

"Stuff being sold today — dabbing, waxes and butane hash oil extraction — is the kind of thing that would make Jerry Garcia turn round," he said.

Today's pot growers aren't "just a few underground hippies," he said.

They're wealthy, college-educated business people wooing investors with pitches to become the "Anheuser-Busch of marijuana" or to introduce "the marijuana version of Marlboro cigarettes."

Sabet was preaching to the choir Friday. Prevention experts are already concerned about an upward trend in marijuana use among Utah's youths.

A recent survey found more Utah 10th-graders are using marijuana than are using cigarettes, said Susannah Burt, prevention director for the state Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

"If weighing the risks for the community versus the benefits for a handful of families, I would say, 'Yes, I would prefer FDA studies to be conducted prior to supporting legalization of cannabidiol," she said.

Public opinion swings the other way — even in Utah, where a slight majority favor legalizing medical marijuana, a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll found.

But armed with alarming statistics, Sabet said states should think twice about following Colorado's lead.

Since Colorado legalized medical marijuana — recreational sales are now also legal — the state has seen dramatic increases in marijuana-related driving fatalities and the accidental ingestion of pot-infused candy and brownies by children, he said.

"Denver now has more dispensaries than Starbucks," he said, noting the low-cost pot grown there is being diverted to other states.

Teen use of weed in Colorado is nearly three times the national average, Sabet said. "If Denver were an American state, it would have the highest marijuana use rate in the country."

kstewart@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KStewart4Trib