BILLINGS — A nonpartisan advocacy group is lobbying in Helena this week attempting to revise marijuana regulation in Montana.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) is a national organization aimed at educating Americans on the dangers of marijuana and to promote smart marijuana policy. The group's local affiliate, SAFE Montana, also joined in on the fight.
The organization's president and CEO, Kevin Sabet, told MTN News on Friday the group doesn't want to see another "Big Tobacco" campaign with marijuana. Sabet formally served three White House administrations as a drug policy advisor before co-founding the organization with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island.
“We spent decades trying to roll back the issues related to big tobacco. And we learned too late. Millions of people dead as a result of the tobacco industry lying about its harms, and we all believed it until we realized they were lying," Sabet said on a video call. "I just hate to see us repeat history again with marijuana. It’s going to be too late. You’re going to have millions of people with psychosis, schizophrenia, mental health issues, you know, raising suicide risk five-fold."
Sabet said the group is trying to ban marijuana advertisements and tighten up recreational regulations. He believes marijuana has become too commercialized and is more dangerous than many believe.
“We don’t want to see people go to prison for marijuana, but we also don’t want to see it massively commercialized. We think that right now, a lot of the American public are underestimating the effects of today’s very highly potent marijuana,” Sabet said. “We have a lot of kid-friendly products. Gummies, ice creams. We have things called concentrates which are essentially oils that you can vape and also use in different ways. Some of them have 99.9% THC, they claim."
And Sabet believes there's a double standard when it comes to things like marijuana.
“So part of the reason why alcohol and tobacco are so harmful is because they’re legal. It’s not just the biological issue of how harmful it is to your brain. It’s also the legality of those two drugs. And the train has left the station, but you know they’re widely commercialized, they appeal to youth, they’re badges of adulthood. They’re promoted and normalized in society. And so why would we want to make that same mistake again if we can help it I think is the question."
Marijuana shop owners in Billings disagree.
Jason Smith, who co-owns Montana Advanced Caregivers, said if regulations were stricter, more harm would be done than good.
“Montana had $300 million in cannabis sales this year, the first year, with $58 million generated in tax revenue. And it created 5,000 jobs of state-badged employees that had to pass a background check. And this would create a $300 million black market and jobs in a market only for the cartel to bring in fentanyl and death into Montana," Smith said on Friday. "If you can’t get it here, and you’re saying it’s illegal, then the only other place to get it is either from your neighbor or whoever’s bringing it in across state lines. And then you don’t know what you’re getting."
Smith said dispensaries are licensed and have strict protocols to follow to be able to sell marijuana.
"We card here. The stuff is tested. It’s regulated. If you’re not the age of 21 or older, you’re not allowed to purchase or procure any products here,” Smith said. “Your neighbor doesn’t card. Your neighbor doesn’t care. Your neighbor will trade weed for a carton of eggs or anything else because there’s value to it."
And Smith believes marijuana commercialization is nothing like what Big Tobacco did with cigarettes.
“It’s already the people’s choice. Nobody is forced to come into here or any of these establishments. It shouldn’t be compared to cigarettes or big tobacco, but it should be compared to alcohol and that’s why it’s regulated through the Department of Revenue in the state of Montana. The same department that regulates the alcohol and liquor licenses within the state of Montana,” Smith said. “Besides the product being safe, it’s the people that work in these establishments, run these establishments and own these establishments that make it safe. There’s not a lot of people in various jobs that have to pass a background check and get fingerprinted."
According to Smith, changing regulations could mean a lot of lost jobs—and money—for the state.
“Montanans have passed and created a $300 million industry. And if we don’t fill those needs for that industry, somebody else will. Somebody that’s not regulated or tested or zoned to be in these spots,” Smith said.
And Smith believes a law the Legislature passed in 2021, which allowed medical-marijuana dispensaries to sell recreationally, should remain as is.
“Listen to the people," Smith said. "And the people voted for recreational marijuana in Montana and safe access to these products in Montana."
But others, like Sabet, disagree and want change. Sabet believes Montana voters weren't told the full truth of what they were voting on when they passed the 2020 initiative that legalized recreational sales.
“I also think voters here in Montana were duped when it came to the recent initiative. Most of them, according to our polls, did not know the specifics. They didn’t realize that it would have so many more pot shops. They didn’t realize that there was essentially unlimited amounts of THC allowed in the product," Sabet said. "They didn’t realize they could come in gummy form, gummy bears and ice creams and cookies and sodas. And advertising. So this is a huge issue."
A huge issue—on both ends of the argument.
“This, like I said, is all inspected and regulated," Smith said. "The guy on the corner isn’t, and he doesn’t care."