Q&A: Anti-pot legalization advocate makes his case

Michelle Theriault Boots

On Wednesday, panelists at a University of Alaska Anchorage event debated Alaska's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, which voters will weigh in on Aug. 19.

Ben Cort argued against legalizing pot.

Cort is a board member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Massachusetts-based group founded by Patrick Kennedy that has emerged as a central counterpoint to legalization advocacy organizations. Cort is a former addict who has been sober for nearly 20 years and who has worked in the addiction treatment field and currently works for the University of Colorado Hospital as a community liaison.

He says he was so alarmed by the ultimately successful Colorado ballot proposition to legalize marijuana that he quit his job and worked full-time on the Vote No On 64 campaign. He has been interviewed about legalization by the Denver Post and published opinion pieces in the Huffington Post and other publications.

Q: What has changed in Colorado since marijuana became legal two months ago?

A: It hasn't been long but (the change) has been profound. It's the industrialization of an industry. We have commercialized and industrialized something at a rate that I can't imagine... The advertising, associated products, concentrates, permissiveness, open consumption. It's been two months but it has been wild.

Legalization advocates say an underground, illegal marijuana economy is more dangerous than a regulated, legal one would be. What's your response to that?

The worst thing you can possibly do for youth use is to lower the perception of risk. So the less risk kids see in a particular substance the more likely they are to use it ... a TV show that recently interviewed a vocational drug dealer who said legalization had been fantastic for his marijuana business. He said he's making $10-20,000 per month selling illegally. So, we've emboldened that market.

Why should Alaskans vote against legalizing marijuana?

Because it's not about legalizing. This is about industrializing marijuana. I used to hate it when people came to Colorado to tell us what to do... I hope Alaskans don't feel like I'm doing that. I'm trying to tell you what our experience has been because I think it's going to be a very similar experience here. I've read very carefully the language of your law -- and this is not about legalization, this is about industrialization. They are specifically... protecting concentrates, which in Colorado are 80, 90 percent THC, butane extracted hashes, all of these crazy associated products, the edibles that are sodas. You are also looking at building a pretty significant regulation system around something you can have in Alaska -- you just can't sell it back and forth. So what this ballot initiative is saying is 'open for business, come on in, we want you, 'Big Marijuana.'

In your opinion, what is the ideal legal framework to regulate marijuana? Do you favor decriminalization?

If I give you the right answer I'd say "certainly not what this legislation is." But, if I were to look at it philosophically I'd tell you something that doesn't criminalize small amounts of possession and use but still does keep commerce restricted. Seriously restricted. As I understand your law, what you guys can do is grow weed in your house on your property and consume it there -- the issues arise when a person considers transporting it. But to where would be my question? And to what end? The idea we hear a lot in this conversation is 'I shouldn't be a criminal for wanting to smoke a joint.' Well, in Alaska you're not. What this (ballot initiative) is saying is we want to do a lot more than that.

Your organization has said legalizing marijuana would lead to new bureaucracy and "burdensome government regulation." How do you think it would compare to the way the criminal justice system currently regulates marijuana as an illegal substance?

I'd love to see isolated what portion (of criminal justice spending) actually goes to simple marijuana possession. It would be utterly miniscule. And you have one system (criminal justice) established and in place -- and one that would need to be constructed ....the reality is that with legalization you'd see an increased burden on criminal justice framework because you're going to have so many new laws that need to be enforced. You'll need more folks in that system as well as in any new marijuana regulatory agency. What you'll see is probably an increase in both.

Public opinion polls show that more than half of Alaskans favor legalization of marijuana. With numbers like that, is there a sense of momentum and inevitability that your organization has to contend with?

The sense of inevitability has been created by the complex on the other side and it's something that unfortunately people have bought into -- especially in the press. That 58 percent in favor number you hear? That's people who favor decriminalization. Even I favor decriminalization! I would totally counter the idea that it's inevitable. You have so many people pushing this agenda because there's money to be made in it. The money will be made by the people selling drugs. Give us time in Colorado. See what happens with our youth use, with our productivity, with road safety, with all these areas -- and then take a look at it.

Why do you dedicate yourself to this issue?

It's's twofold. And they are each pretty personal. I have three young kids in public school. I made it out of this thing by the skin of my teeth and I hope my kids don't have to go through same stuff that I did. The majority of people who smoke marijuana never have an issue with it. I recognize that. I'm doing it because every single day I see what happens to people whose lives are ravaged by addiction. And while I will not demonize a substance or an individual and won't say that it's one particular drug's fault, the more people get high the more people are going to develop addictions. And the more people develop addictions, the more pain and suffering there's going to be out there in the world. And it's a really, really ugly thing. So that's why I do it.

(Note: The Daily News on Wednesday published a question and answer with Ethan Nadelmann, a leading advocate for marijuana legalization.)

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.