Those were the facts on the ground as two skilled advocates for and against legalizing pot engaged in a spirited debate — moderated with skill by WFLA News Channel 8 anchor Keith Cate and USF Ph.D. student Sarah-Beth Hopton — on the University of Tampa campus this past Monday night in front of an estimated 500 people, mostly students.
Aaron Houston is the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He said some estimates show that legalization could bring in up to $40 billion in tax revenues and savings for the country. He said 52 percent of federal prisoners are in for drug crimes, and the War on Drugs is a failure.
Kevin Sabet is against legalizing marijuana. From 2009-2011 he served in the Obama administration as senior advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He said even though the potential for enhanced tax revenues is a powerful argument, there would be a heavier debt in "social costs," comparing pot to alcohol and tobacco. He also disputed Houston's figure of those imprisoned, "we are not imprisoning people with marijuana only." He said people imprisoned for using marijuana make up less than 1 percent.
Hopton asked Sabet how much money might flow into Florida's coffers if pot was legal. Sabet said any estimates would be pure speculation, as the experiments in Washington and Colorado are just beginning. He added that regulatory costs of public intoxication and breaking liquor laws cost more than $1.6 million a year, and legalizing pot would only increase those costs.
Houston said some estimates show that Colorado would generate $273 million. Because Florida is three times larger, more than $800 million in new revenues could theoretically come to the Sunshine State.
Both men agreed that marijuana has medicinal benefits.
"I think there's a great future with marijuana as medicine. I do think there is a future in cannabis-based medicines. It just has to be done the right way," Sabet said.
The men discussed the perennial question of whether pot is a gateway drug. Houston said if it is a gateway drug, it's only because it's illegal, and most science has debunked the idea.
Sabet said it must be understood that the toxicity of THC in pot is much different than it was in the 1970s and 80s, and there are more kids than ever getting treatment for marijuana related incidents (approximately 400,000 annually).
Houston agreed that the potency of pot in the 21st century has increased. He said users are consuming less of it, which is healthier because they're taking less smoke into their lungs. Sabet said he didn't understand that theory at all.
There were a few moments of humor. Houston said if marijuana was regulated, it would change the government bureau regulating it from the acronym of ATF (currently standing for alcohol, tobacco and firearms) to ATM. Sabet fired back that it should be WTF.
The two men agreed that American grown pot is much better than what gets imported from Mexico.
Even with all of the negative information about alcohol and cigarettes, Sabet said the reason those substances should remain legal and pot shouldn't is that our country has deemed them to be socially acceptable.
A major point of contention is the argument for rescheduling cannabis from its current status as a Schedule One drug. Sabet mocked the argument that pro-weed activists make that this would change everything. Houston said he was perplexed by Sabet's argument on this issue, and that scheduling is all about the legal status of the drug. He also said there could be as much of an argument for "unscheduling" marijuana as rescheduling it.
Palm Beach County state Sen. Jeff Clemens intends to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would legalize medical marijuana. His attempt during last year's session went nowhere.