Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know by Kevin Sabet

Cannabis streetlight

Who is Kevin Sabet and why is he qualified to reveal the secrets of the marijuana industry? For starters, here are his credentials.

  • Educated in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Also received Masters of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy from Oxford University
  • Served the Clinton administration as a research assistant in the Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • Senior drug policy speechwriter during the Bush administration
  • Senior advisor on drug policy during the Obama administration
  • Author of Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana
  • Co-founder, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) with former Representative Patrick Kennedy
  • Assistant adjunct professor at Yale University
  • Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida
  • Advisor to the United Nations and other multinational organizations
  • Awarded the 2014 Nils Bejerot Award for Global Drug Prevention
  • Awarded the 2019 National Narcotics Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Awarded the John P. McGovern Award for Drug Prevention

In addition, his face, reports, advice and opinions have been splashed across media outlets across the country for many years. He regularly advises domestic and foreign government entities on the best ways to approach the reduction of drug abuse.

That, in a nutshell, is who he is. In other words, he has been around the block many, many times. He knows drug abuse—especially abuse of marijuana—upside down and right-side up. Whether you agree with his observations and recommendations or not, they at least deserve thoughtful consideration.

To make his observations and recommendations known in this, the era of widespread commercialization of marijuana, he has published Smokescreen.

Why Might this Book Be Important and Necessary?

Dollar marijuana

My copy of Smokescreen is marked up from one end to the other as I underlined passages I felt were important or wanted to come back to. Sabet makes points in this book that would have a fairly intense impact even on a stalwart advocate for the liberalization of marijuana laws. He pulls no punches at all but relays the information he has received from industry insiders, legislators and those who have suffered ill effects from this industry’s products.

He’s balancing the scales to some degree with this book. Why might the scales need balancing? Because of the millions of dollars spent on pro-marijuana lobbying and advertising. For example:

  • Lobbying in 2020: $4,056,000
  • Lobbying in 2019: $6,000,500
  • Advertising in 2018: $4.1 million
  • Advertising in 2017: $3.3 million

With that much money being spent on expanding cannabis marketing in America alone, perhaps it’s only fair that someone speaks out on the other side of this issue. Curious minds might ask:

  • What will all this investment buy us, the American people?
  • Will it have any adverse effects on me, my family or my community?

These are questions that deserve answers, sooner rather than later.

First, A Comment on Commercialization

As pointed out in reports from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office, there’s a difference between simply legalizing marijuana for medical use and the commercialization of this product. As soon as commercialization takes hold, there’s a focus on profits and expansion. Colorado is a test case for this shift.

In Colorado from 2000 to 2008, marijuana was legal for medical use but the industry had not been commercialized. During this time, there were between 1,000 and 4,800 medical marijuana cardholders and no dispensaries.

Then, in 2009, the industry became commercialized. By the end of 2012, the number of cardholders had exploded to 100,000 and there were 500 licensed dispensaries.

Cannabis market

We are now in an era where expansion and profits are expected, as you can see in the investments mentioned above. The game is no longer about a few stoners who want to get high as they live in their loft in the woods, nor is it about a handful of medically challenged people who can benefit from cannabis products.

This rush to commercialization has resulted in what Sabet refers to as “The Green Rush.” It’s a rush for market position and maximum return on investment. That’s going to mean production of more products and acquisition of more customers. And steady customers are always the best ones.

Sabet Works on Balancing the Scales

With this money and drive to expand the cannabis industry, Sabet offers a counter-argument by answering those questions: What are we getting ourselves into? With each additional state or level of legalization, what result are we bringing on ourselves?

In the chapter “Facts Matter, Money Talks,” he summarizes some of the effects emanating from the level of commercialization that already exists.

  • Today’s marijuana products can contain as much as 99% THC, the primary intoxicant people who want to get high consider desirable. For comparison, marijuana in the 1970s was 1.5% to 3% THC.
  • Addiction rates have more than doubled. (Yes, it is addictive.)
  • The percentage of car crashes related to marijuana use more than doubled in Washington State the year retail sales opened up in that state.
  • The National Academy of Sciences states that the more a person uses pot, the more likely it is those users will develop other substance abuse problems and dependencies.
  • Twenty-five percent of Americans in states where pot use was legal for adults admitted to going to work stoned.
  • Legalizing marijuana did not eliminate the black market as promised. As an example, in California, illegal sellers outnumbered regulated pot businesses by nearly three to one.

To counter this rapidly advancing commercialization, Sabet and Patrick Kennedy founded the non-profit educational group Smart Approaches to Marijuana in 2013. This book is one of Sabet’s projects as CEO of that group.


Sabet notes that the cannabis industry is following the Big Tobacco playbook by targeting “vulnerable, underserved communities because there aren’t enough resources in these areas to help consumers deal with the consequences of addiction when it occurs.” It’s typical in an addictive industry, he comments, for “80 percent of profits to come from 20 percent of users.” He counsels readers not to expect cannabis companies to treat vulnerable communities any differently in the days that follow.

“vulnerable, underserved communities because there aren’t enough resources in these areas to help consumers deal with the consequences of addiction when it occurs.”

Sabet quotes a memo that circulated in Philip Morris, one of the Big Tobacco companies. (This quote uses the original spelling, marihuana.)

The company that will bring out the first marihuana smoking devices, be it a cigarette or some other form, will capture the market and be in a better position than its competitors to satisfy the legal public demand for such products. I want to suggest, therefore, that you institute immediately a research program on all phases of marihuana.”

Confirming the interest of Big Tobacco in this industry is the news that Altria, the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes and other tobacco products, is now a major investor in a large cannabis company. In 2018, Altria purchased a 45% stake in Cronos Group, a multinational cannabis company based in Canada. They also acquired a company manufacturing marijuana vaporizers. Altria is now working on legislative fronts to improve the environment for the expansion of cannabis companies.


Selling drugs to minors
Photo by fotoNino/

Sabet devotes another chapter to telling the stories of whistleblowers in various states that legalized some level of marijuana use. These whistleblowers discovered that the controls placed on this industry in their states were incredibly inadequate, resulting in serious quality issues and criminality. One whistleblower in Denver documented violations of existing regulations that included:

  • Expired business licenses
  • Presence of illegal pesticides and solvents in the products
  • Illegal advertising
  • Giving away marijuana
  • Sales to minors
  • Sales of more quantity than allowed to a single person
  • Sale of medical marijuana to people not registered to receive it

Other whistleblowers noted the licensing of convicted criminals to operate marijuana businesses, inspectors being hamstrung by their bosses, product testing being falsified and much more. One inspector referred to the whole industry as the “Wild West.”

Can Sabet Actually Balance the Scales?

Can this single book come close to balancing the millions of dollars in lobbying and advertising being spent by those wishing to claim cannabis profits? Not this book alone but I have to admit, it is jam-packed with many more facts than I can do justice to in this review.

For whom would this book be a valuable read? Anyone who has the impression that this business got awfully big, awfully fast, or who is concerned about the impact this industry might have on his own community or family. Or who feels uncomfortable when they see ads or billboards for cannabis businesses.

We’ve all seen the positive side of this industry in media and even in our entertainment. Sabet published this book to level the playing field. Therefore, perhaps his book deserves some attention.


  • Sabet, Kevin. Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know. (Forefront Books, 2021).

Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.