To celebrate my 45th anniversary of smoking weed, I went to my first Cannabis Cup.

I drove to the one held in San Bernadino, CA, but judging by video I’ve seen, it could have been any other -- an orderly floodtide of upbeat and licensed pot enthusiasts of various races and economic strata, pouring through the gates, swirling around the grid of booths, lining up to sample dabs, checking out the latest merch and innovations. Along with the people and the music and the smoke, the pleasant aroma hovering over all, there was a certain copasetic spirit evident, a hybrid strain of communality. I was with my people. It was good.

Over the past four decades, I’ve smoked pot all over the world; I’ve come to think it as The Great Equalizer. Born a small-town boy, my discovery of marijuana was indeed a portal. Through the years, I’ve smoked before lacrosse practice in the wooded gully behind our high school football field; with Rick James outside a strip club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood; with 13-year-old dope boys on a hot corner in North Philadelphia; with guerilla fighters in a refugee camp in Palestine; outside a small Buddhist shrine at 14,000 feet on a snowy Himalayan pass with a Nepalese Sherpa; in an apartment in Hollywood with the rapper Snoop Dogg as he got his hair braided (my special strain of OGPR made him cough).

None of these moments would have gone down the way they did without the presence of marijuana. In almost every case, the introduction of weed was transformative in some way, a shared experience that distracted us from our differences and heighted our universals. Like a skeleton key, pot for me has always had the power to unlock doors. Waiting on the other side is the gift of understanding.

Awash in the crowd at the Cannabis Cup, huffing a mini-vape pen that a nice guy I know from Grenco Science had just handed to me, I took a moment to reflect. For a guy who’d grown up smoking in the woods, who’d spent a good deal of college listening to the Dead and reading history books with a towel jammed against bottom of the door, who’d covered the government’s Drug War as a journalist for Rolling Stone and visited many courtrooms and prisons, and met a lot of poor fuckers who were behind bars because police had engineered elaborate crimes in order to get them there . . .  well, it struck me that we pot smokers had come pretty far.  

I had my license.  I had my purchases. I was not even the least bit paranoid about the upcoming drive home.

Walking toward the exit, pleasantly buzzed, I fell into conversation with one of the movement’s uber-veterans, a guy who has been fighting for legalization since the ’70s.

As we stood watching patrons continue to enter -- it was the first of two days and there was still a line -- this veteran of over 40 years of battle was not so upbeat.

Even as 25 percent of our states have adopted medical marijuana laws, with a dozen more states tracked to join within the next few months -- and with three or four states seriously considering outright legalization -- the enemy is regrouping, my friend explained. A new leader has risen to prominence. He’s got the ear of politicians and the bottomless purse of academia to back him up. He wants to take away everything we’ve gained.  

My buzz sufficiently harshed, I looked at my friend. I’d never even heard of the dude. How dangerous could he be?

“Look him up,” my friend said. “He’s the devil.”

From what I could tell, Kevin Sabet, 35, is an unlikely underworld figure.

He grew up comfortably in Orange County, CA, the editor of the high school paper and a member of the tennis team. Watching him debate drug policy on various YouTube clips, in various forums, he brings to mind a fay programmer who decided to run for student body president.

Sabet’s credentials are anchored by his three stints (for three different presidents) in the office of the federal drug czar.

Thereafter, he took the revolving door into the academic and private sectors, consulting and teaching on matters involving drug laws. In 2013 he combined forces with former congressman Patrick Kennedy, a reformed drug user and member of the benighted Kennedy family, to found Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which advocates a “third-way approach” to the federal government’s policy on marijuana.

Looking further, SAM’s platform amounts, in some degree, to a kinder, gentler form of prohibition -- somewhere between the legalize, tax and regulate folks on one side and the lock-em-up Drug War folks on the other, this latter largely responsible for the $4 trillion expended on the fight against drugs that has led to crowded courts, overflowing jails and two or three generations of ruined youth. At a time when the futility and waste of the Drug War is finally being recognized -- destroying the credibility of the extremist argument even as legalization spreads through the roll call of the states -- Sabet’s group has stepped into the void.  

Today, according to Rolling Stone, Sabet is “the number one enemy of legalization.” People like my friend worry that even as the legalization movement continues to grow, the inertia of the status quo will overcome the momentum of reform, especially given that legalizing marijuana is an issue that ranks at best as a political sideshow in our complex and multi-faceted democracy. No politician, in other words, is going to stake their job on legalizing pot. “One well-organized group with one credible voice,” says Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald, “may be all that’s needed to increase the political costs of reform just enough to ensure that most politicians and pundits continue to ignore the issue, or even join the fight against reform.”

SAM’s “middle ground” focuses a lot on research and reeducation, a word I always find a little scary. It supports study of medical marijuana but no actual smoking, and likens the evils of legalized cannabis to the evils of other big businesses that control legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, making the argument that the social ills and expenses of abuse far outweigh any possible tax windfall.

More than anything the message of SAM feels a little religious to me; Another group trying to legislate morality. What it reflects at its core is a lingering Puritanism that makes consensual hedonistic pursuit a sin.

I can never remember: Why is it again that God disapproves of having fun?

As it turned out, the devil wasn’t very hard to reach.

I found him on Twitter and sent a message. A few weeks later, after a holiday break and a time zone mixup, we connected by phone.

We spoke for nearly an hour. Up front he wanted to let me know he’s kind of hurt to be so demonized. “A lot of what I do has been mischaracterized,” he says.  “But the people who have met me, the ones I’ve debated it with, even if we totally disagree on policy, you’d be surprised at what nice things they actually say about me, which of course is flattering, but it also means there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

He grew up near Disneyland. He is at the core a liberal man, he says, a member of the Bahai faith. “I’m all about universal health care and education, I think taxes are a good thing. I don’t fit into that mold of the conservative Nancy Reagan cheerleader.”  He remembers being four years old, his eldest sister teaching him about the evils of apartheid over Penguin’s frozen yogurt. The middle sister loved Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs.

In high school in the late ’90s, as the editor of the student newspaper, Sabet found his calling. He discovered that his school district had said no to millions of dollars of free federal funding for drug counseling and other after school activities. When he put the school board on blast, young Sabet got a lot of attention from the media, a cute kid fighting the system.

From then on, Sabet found his calling as a prodigy in the anti-drug movement, a White House staffer with a masters from Oxford and a doctorate from ultra-liberal UC Berkeley, where he once started a group called Citizens for a Drug Free Berkeley.

“I joke today that it was about as popular as the Coalition for a Wine-Free France,” Sabet said. “That’s my line. It gets a good laugh.”

I hung up the phone. One thing I’ve learned is that, once you meet the enemy, he’s rarely as scary as you made him out to be. This is the devil?  

Then I remembered something the head of NORML had said to me. Not so many years ago, when the press wrote about marijuana, they would first quote all the negative opinions and experts. “The story would be ‘marijuana bad, marijuana bad, marijuana bad,’” said Alan St. Pierre. “And then just to make the story balanced, down at the bottom of the piece, they’d quote some fuck like me,” the guy who represented the minority opinion.
Men like Kevin Sabet are integral to the democratic process, where everybody is allowed to say and believe and even campaign for anything they wish. But right now, clearly, he’s the poor fuck quoted at the bottom of the piece.

Next time I run into my friend, I’ll tell him.