SAM is the Invisible Opposition

Legalization seems to be losing ground in Alaska, where, in the latest Public Policy Poll, 49 percent of those polled said they would vote “No” on legalization, with 44 percent saying “Yes” and 8 percent “Not sure.”

Prominent among the organizers of the opposition is Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group many people associate with its public face, former Representative Patrick Kennedy. The group is actually the brain child of Kevin Sabet, a longtime opponent of legalization, named in 2013 by Rolling Stone as one of legalization’s biggest enemies. The domain is actually registered to Kevin Sabet-Shagri. Since its launch in early 2013, SAM has organized in 19 states and Canada.

But who are they, really? The structure and funding of SAM are remarkably opaque. The organization bears close watching as it unfolds on the local level.


What Do We Know about SAM?

We know that the Board of Directors is a platinum-credentialed group. At its launch in January 2013, named board members were:

  • Chair – Patrick J. Kennedy, Jr., former Congressman from Rhode Island, advocate for mental health and addiction recovery.
  • David Frum – Former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist and conservative commentator.
  • Dr. Sharon Levy - Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Medical Director for the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program.
  • Dr. Kimber Richter - Associate Professor, Preventative Medicine and Public Health, University of Kansas with research focusing on tobacco cessation.
  • Kevin Sabet – Assistant Professor of Psychiatry  and Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, former senior adviser to the Obama White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

We know almost nothing beyond the shiny surface of board affiliations.


Hiding in Plain Sight

The website, ironically titled “Learn About SAM,” contains almost no information about the organization, location, phone number, staffing, financing, tax-status or any other pertinent information. The usual “Donate Now” button leads to nothing about tax-deductibility or lack thereof. The only clue is a linked invitation to a $200 and up “Learn More About SAM” reception at the mid-year meeting of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, which counts pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma among its supporters. The silence is deafening. What little we know is peculiar.


Where Does the Money Come From?

Frequently repeated statements to the effect that SAM is a volunteer organization do not address that question, of course. The answers to the mystery of SAM’s resources may lie in its local affiliations. In Alaska, for instance, one of the major supporters of the locally named opposition, “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake,” is Chenega Corporation, an Alaska Native Village Corporation that operates in the government services contracting marketplace. Chenega Corporation also employs Kristina Woolston, Big Marijuana. Big Mistake’s volunteer spokesperson.


SAM’s Local Face

SAM organizers concede that they were late out of the gate with respect to legalization in Washington and Colorado. However, they have apparently made up for lost time in Alaska, taking advantage of an unforeseen delay in getting legalization on the ballot that pushed the vote from August to November.

In Oregon, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, much like Chenega Corporation, has announced its intention to work with SAM in opposition to the initiative.

In Missouri, where advocates decided to postpone planned 2014 efforts to get legalization on the ballot in 2016, SAM rushed into the gap. SAM’s Missouri affiliate, “Think Again,” hosted an organizing forum in Joplin in January and kicked off a statewide opposition tour in May.

In other states, Maine and New York, for example, the SAM-supported organizations, SAM Maine and SAM NY seem to exist largely as shell organizations.  Nonetheless, the seeds are planted as each of these states contemplates legalization or further liberalization in the future.

SAM had a slow start, but is beginning to play a major role in opposition to legalization efforts. They have mysterious resources, but appear to be well-funded and well-connected. Legalization advocates have had some success and may have begun to see national legalization as nearly inevitable; too soon for that, SAM bears close watching.

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