Kevin Sabet said a lot of people don't realize that marijuana today is very potent when discussing legalizing the drug.
Many people believe marijuana is harmless, he said, and are basing that assumption on their experiences with the drug decades ago. But, Sabet said, marijuana today is three times more potent than it was fifteen years ago, and five times more potent than it was in the 1960s.
And that, he said, is one of a number of reasons that the public should be wary about promoting universal legalization.
Sabet, the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), was the featured speaker at a town hall meeting on marijuana hosted by Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnerships.
Frank Rosenhoover, the partnerships' president, said Sabet was a "very eminent speaker" and noted that he served as an adviser on drugs to the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The event also treated its crowd of about 40 to a panel discussion featuring Sabet, Dr. Joseph Antonowitz of UPMC Altoona, Michael LaRocco of LaRocco Counseling and Judy Rosser of the Drug and Alcohol Partnerships, followed by a question and answer session with Sabet.
Sabet, before debunking several myths about marijuana use, praised efforts to deal with drug abuse locally.
"The work that you're all doing in recovery, prevention and treatment is so vital," he said.
Sabet said that research has found a number of potential side effects to frequent marijuana use, including decreased IQ and poor school performance in youth and poor work performance in adults.
Though many believe people cannot become addicted to marijuana, Sabet said about 10 percent of frequent users do develop an addiction. He said that although drugs like heroin, and cocaine and legal alcohol and tobacco are more addictive, that figure is significant.
Sabet also said that the medical marijuana movement is a bit of a misnomer as well, as the drug is still purchased much in the same way as by a recreational user and carries the same concerns, like mold or pesticides on the plant.
"That term makes no more sense than saying medical heroin," he said.
He said, though, that the components of marijuana could have some medicinal value, especially for terminally-ill patients, and that, if those compounds are cultivated in the correct environment, pharmaceutical drugs with the benefits of marijuana could be created. Sabet said there is an oral spray currently being tested that would provide this.
At the end of the day, though, Sabet said, full legalization of marijuana is truly about money, much like the alcohol and tobacco industries, and would likely lead to a "big marijuana"-type industry that mimics them.
"Big marijuana would promote addiction to make money, and would likely be able to wield political power as well.
"Money talks in this country," he said.