Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy kicks off anti-marijuana effort in Colorado

Greg Campbell | Contributor

Former Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy began a national effort Thursday to throw the brakes on what he called the “300-miles-per hour freight train to (marijuana) legalization” with the launch of Project SAM — an anti-legalization effort he hopes will “answer some of the canards, some of the myths about marijuana that are often perpetuated by those proponents of legalization.”

Kennedy spoke at the Denver Press Club in Colorado, which legalized adult use of marijuana in November. He was joined by the group’s co-founder, Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former senior policy advisor to Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, and members of Colorado’s drug treatment community. Former Bush speechwriter and columnist David Frum is also on Project SAM’s board of directors, but wasn’t present at the launch.

Kennedy said Project SAM (which stands for Smart Approaches to Marijuana) is meant to find a middle ground between total prohibition and legalization.

The group advocates treatment over arrest for people caught with small amounts of marijuana. But it still wants pot to be illegal.

Kennedy said he and others “feel very threatened by this new initiative,” and he is particularly concerned about its impact on young people.

The initiative, Amendment 64, made legal marijuana part of the Colorado constitution. But it only allows pot use, possession and cultivation for adults 21 and older. It is still illegal in Colorado for teens and young adults to use or possess the drug.

But Kennedy and many of his guests said they’re afraid the new law will lower kids’ “perception of harm” about marijuana and lead to more teen use.

Mason Tvert, a representative of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project and one of the architects of Amendment 64, said his group agrees with Kennedy that marijuana shouldn’t be available to young people. But he added that if Kennedy is interested in marijuana education, “he should start with himself.”

Tvert said marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol and that adults should be free to choose the safer option without fear that they’ll be sent to mandatory treatment.

“When it comes to adults,” he said, “marijuana users are no more in need of forced public interventions, education and treatment than regular consumers of alcohol, Advil, Starbucks or McDonald’s.”

Tvert also called Kennedy “hypocritical” for opposing marijuana when Kennedy’s family made part of its fortune on alcohol sales.

Sabet said his organization isn’t interested in reversing Colorado’s historical law, but that a new partner organization called Smart Colorado would work to influence the Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force. The task force is currently working on a plan for a retail marijuana distribution system mandated by the amendment. Its recommendations will be presented to the state legislature by the end of February.

Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, will spearhead Smart Colorado.

When asked directly if the group would try to undo Amendment 64, Doyle said the group would announce its plans in a few weeks.

Repealing a constitutional amendment in Colorado takes a full vote of the electorate, which passed Amendment 64 in November by a 55-44 margin. Amendments can also be repealed if the U.S. Supreme Court declares them unconstitutional.

“This is a national effort,” Kennedy said, “but it’s also increasingly a state-by-state effort. That’s why we need to have a national organization like SAM and we need to have state chapters of SAM … to disseminate the common knowledge that can be useful to those public health officials and advocates in each respective state.”

Kennedy said he’s been discussing Project SAM’s goals with policy experts at the federal level, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Although Sabet said Project SAM isn’t attempting to shape the federal government’s still-unknown response to Colorado’s new law, he said he hopes the administration will listen to experts who support SAM, many of whom are in the drug abuse treatment field.

Kennedy also discussed his family’s struggles with alcoholism and his own addiction to Oxycontin, using the story to illustrate the danger he sees in lessening marijuana’s historical stigma as a very dangerous drug.

“I grew up in a house where the messages to me not to self-medicate weren’t that strong,” he said. “I started self-medicating early, because of my anxiety, because of my depression, because that’s what I saw around me.”

“On this issue, no one would say to smoke opium to get the beneficial impacts of narcotics,” he said. “Is that essentially what we’re saying with marijuana?

“That is essentially what we’re saying.”

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