As 2020 came to a close, a story published in The Hill on December 28 caught my attention. Generally, I try to avoid personal takes in this column and stick to analysis of cannabis policy and industry related news, but for this New Years article I was inspired to break my usual protocol and issue a direct response in this space.
You see, back in the mid 2000’s when I was serving as executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, I participated in debates on college campuses across the country on the issue of marijuana legalization. While most of those debates were against Kevin Sabet, who would later go on to found Project SAM and become the leading voice in the media advocating in favor of cannabis prohibition, early on in my tenure at SSDP I participated in a debate hosted by the University of Central Florida NORML and SSDP chapters against long time DEA agent and administrator Robert Stutman.
For those who are familiar with Stutman, he was not your run of the mill DEA agent in the field. He rose through the ranks of the organization to become agent-in-charge of the DEA’s field office in Boston and New York City, arguably the highest ranking job at the agency outside of the head DEA Administrator. Robert went on to form The Stutman Group, which consults with companies and municipalities on drug addiction and setting up drug testing programs.
So you can imagine my surprise in seeing his recent article entitled, “A Retired DEA Agent’s Plea: Time To Reschedule Marijuana.” Could it really be possible that this longtime ardent prohibitionist, someone who spent a career arresting and locking up marijuana offenders, and someone who launched a successful public speaking career touting the evils of cannabis, really have had such a dramatic change of heart?
As it turns out, the answer is yes. And the reason for this about face is one all too familiar to those of us who have spent decades advocating for a more humane and evidence based marijuana policy: he found relief in cannabis for a chronic illness. Stutman explained his turnaround in his own words:
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So, it was with a sense of irony and guilt that I recently agreed to my doctor’s suggestion to try medical marijuana. I was suffering from back pain after three back surgeries; the pain was so great that I could hardly walk or sleep. Other medications, including opioids, have not worked. But after taking a marijuana extract, the pain disappeared. I got my normal life back.
To treat my back pain, I can legally use opioids — drugs that kill tens of thousands of people a year. Yet I feel guilty about breaking a federal law against using marijuana, a drug that has never, to my knowledge, caused a fatal overdose.
As I read his column in astonishment that one of prohibition’s most ardent defenders is now advocating for an end to prohibition, using some of the same talking points that I lobbed at him on that debate stage more than a decade ago no less, I couldn’t help feel conflicting emotions over his turnaround. On one hand, I should be happy that someone with such a long history of being on the wrong side of the issue has finally come around and could potentially be an effective ally in our struggle, as he has connections to people in power that cannabis reformers could never reach on our own.
On the other, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that someone who caused so much pain and suffering to hundreds, if not thousands, of non-violent cannabis consumer and patients took so long to change his stance, despite having had direct exposure to the very arguments he now employs through years of debating advocates like myself, former NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre, and former High Times editor Steve Hager, two other longtime Stutman debate partners.
At one point Stutman makes the argument that “The DEA refuses to declassify marijuana as medicine, pointing to a dearth of scientific evidence that it works. But a dearth of marijuana research exists in the United States because scientists are reluctant to work with a Schedule I drug. It is time to break this pernicious cycle.” This is the very talking point that I used against him on our debate stage, which he denied and dismissed at the time. Why didn’t it resonate then? Why did it take a chronic illness to realize that he was wrong all along?
Then the cynicism kicked in. When I turned to my wife to tell her about the column, her first response was “I wonder whose board he’s sitting on?” Upon reading the news, a former SSDP colleague of mine texted me “watch him come out with a line of CBD products.” And of course, this cynicism is justified. So many former prohibitionists have had a change of heart when it benefitted their bank accounts, from former House speaker John Boehner joining the board of multi-state operator Acreage, to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle joining the advisory board of cannabis investment firm Northern Swan, to countless former police chiefs accepting security positions on state-based cannabis business license applications.
To be fair, I have no evidence to suggest that Robert Stutman’s change of heart was financially motivated. His story of finding relief in cannabis for his chronic pain is believable, and a familiar tale to those of us who have seen firsthand the life changing impact that medical cannabis can have on those in pain. But even a well intentioned and purely motivated change of heart can lead to financial benefit, and I can’t shake the feeling that Stutman may indeed be on the verge of launching a CBD line or something similar.
So I have a proposition for Mr. Stutman. One that will allow him to put his money where his mouth is and support a cause he now believes in, whether or not he has any future plans to join the cannabis or CBD industry.
Back when Robert and I were on that debate stage in Orlando, I told the audience that I was there because I fully believed in the cause, and that every dollar of the speaker fee I received was donated directly to Students for Sensible Drug Policy. I challenged Stutman to demonstrate his similar passion for prohibitionist causes by pledging to donate his honorarium to the anti-drug organization of his choosing. He laughed at the suggestion and ignored the challenge.
So I am going to renew my challenge, only now in support of a cause that he and I both believe in. After reading Stutman’s article, I bought the rights to CBDEA.us. I am sure he would agree that should he ever decide to enter the CBD industry, a DEA lifer like himself could never come up with a better company name than CBDEA.
Robert Stutman, if you are reading this, I now challenge you to donate the speaker fee that you received back in 2007 for our debate at UCF to Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Of course, being thirteen years ago, I don’t recall the exact amount that we received, so I will take your word as the honorable man you claim to be. When you send me a copy of the donation receipts, I will officially turn over ownership of CBDEA.us to you, for use in any future CBD or cannabis business you may choose to launch.
Of course, should you never choose to launch a business, you will be able to rest easy knowing that you have supported two great organizations who are advancing a cause that you now passionately support, helping to ensure that fellow chronic pain sufferers who do not live in states where medical cannabis is legal may one day be able to legally find the same relief that you have, thanks to the work of organizations like NORML and SSDP.
To help you get the word out, I’ll be happy to host you on one of my podcasts, where you can reach a large audience to help convince other cannabis skeptics about why they should support reform. After all, if a long time DEA agent and prohibition advocate like yourself can have a change of heart, surely you can help convince others to do the same.
And while you’re at it, please consider joining the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, an organization made up of current and former law enforcement officers who are dedicated to ending prohibition and replacing our current drug laws with policy based in science, evidence, and compassion. The organization is always looking for additions to their speaker series, and your background and career would make you among the most impactful in their roster.
So what do you say Bob? Let’s start 2021 by putting old debates behind us and move forward into the new years as allies in the fight to bring sanity to our nation’s cannabis laws.