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Patrick Kennedy’s Big Buzz Kill

A recovering drug addict himself, the former Rhode Island congressman urges a “smart” approach to marijuana.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Patrick Kennedy

The past year was a good one for marijuana reform advocates: in November, voters in Washington and Colorado passed ballot questions legalizing personal pot use by adults. In Massachusetts, voters approved the medical use of marijuana, something lawmakers in Connecticut had done a few months earlier; it’s now legal in 18 states. Rhode Island passed a law making possession of a small amount of pot a civil, not criminal, offense, as Massachusetts had done in 2009. And more changes are inevitable, say reformers, pointing to several national polls in which a majority of respondents said they support legalization.

These developments, of course, have been met with opposition, from social conservatives and law enforcement and drug treatment groups. And now those opponents find themselves with a new, and somewhat surprising, ally: Patrick Kennedy, former Democratic Rhode Island congressman and son of Massachusetts’ late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Last week, Kennedy formally unveiled Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or Project SAM, which describes itself as a bi-partisan group advancing a “commonsense, third-way approach to marijuana policy [that] is based on reputable science and sound principles of public health and safety.”

That approach, it says, “neither legalizes, nor demonizes, marijuana.” Rather, SAM advocates policies it says would reduce marijuana use without inflicting harsh penalties on casual users and small-time dealers. But some of those policies, critics say, are heavy-handed, particularly those mandating drug screening and education. They also accuse Kennedy, himself a recovering addict whose family’s fortune comes in part from the liquor industry, of hypocrisy.

 

SAM’s leadership team includes conservative writer David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush; Kevin Sabet, a one-time Obama drug policy adviser who was active in the campaign against Massachusetts’ medical marijuana ballot question; and several doctors with backgrounds in public health, mental health and substance abuse.

But Kennedy is SAM’s marquee name, the reason the brand-new group has already received the attention it has—not only because he’s part of perhaps the nation’s most famous political family, but also because of his personal history of drug abuse and mental illness. Kennedy, who served eight terms in Congress before opting not to run for re-election in 2010, has spoken publicly about his years of abusing illegal drugs and alcohol, extending back to high school. In 2006, he crashed his car on Capitol Hill; shortly after, he announced that he was addicted to prescription pain medication and went into rehab. He also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and received one year of probation. Kennedy has been in rehab several times—most recently in 2009—and has spoken about suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. He says he’s been sober for two years.

Politically, Kennedy’s group positions itself as straddling the two presumed extremes of the drug reform debate: on one side, activists—a mix, interestingly, of liberals and conservatives—who believe that the so-called “war on drugs” has been an expensive and misguided failure and call for an end to marijuana prohibition; on the other, those who believe the war is worth continuing and that the liberalization of drug laws has negative social and public health effects.

Project SAM contends that scientific evidence has been largely ignored in the political debate over marijuana policy, to deleterious effect. Marijuana, the group says, is made up of hundreds of components, most of which science knows little about, and what it does know isn’t good: SAM points to research linking pot use to heart and lung disease and to various mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. It also cites a study that found marijuana to be particularly harmful to still-developing adolescent brains. The group also contends—and this is an especially controversial point in the debate—that marijuana is addictive, particularly the stronger strains available today. (“Today’s marijuana is not your mama’s Woodstock weed,” SAM says on its website, in one example of what feels like a rather awkward attempt to be the “hip” anti-pot group.)

While SAM considers pot use serious business, it opposes criminal sanctions on casual users; while low-level possession charges don’t result in long prison sentences, the group notes, they do lead to criminal records that can haunt people for years. Instead, the group backs a policy similar to the one in Massachusetts and other states, treating possession of small amounts as a civil offense, albeit with one major, and controversial, difference: SAM call for those cited for possession to go through a “mandatory health screening and marijuana education program,” including possible monitoring through a probation program “designed to prevent further drug use.”

Among SAM’s more liberal positions: it advocates the expunging of low-level possession charges from criminal records, the abolishment of mandatory minimum sentences and the restoration of “all civil rights” once a drug sentence has been served. The group also calls for more marijuana treatment and education programs. And it supports the medical use of cannabis, although in non-smoked forms that contain just those components found to have medicinal benefits, and under Food and Drug Administration control. Medical marijuana programs that already exist on the state level are “a joke” and are exploited by recreational smokers, SAM argues.

Perhaps SAM’s most interesting angle is its warning of the threat of creating what it calls a “Big Marijuana” industry, as dangerous as its predecessor, “Big Tobacco.” SAM points to the egregious and well-documented sins of the tobacco industry—lying to the public about its product’s risks; targeting young consumers—and predicts that the same scenario will play out if marijuana is legalized. “A commercial marijuana industry will act just as the tobacco industry acts,” the group says. “Big Tobacco may even take over a marijuana industry once it’s up and running. … We would be incredibly naive to think that a commercial marijuana industry wouldn’t employ all of the same strategies to convince people—especially young people—to use marijuana.”

 

While Kennedy’s group aims to appeal to political liberals—indeed, a number of its positions, such as those on sentencing reform and criminal sanctions, likely will—it’s already met with sharp criticism from drug policy reformers.

Even before SAM’s official unveiling last week, the national Marijuana Policy Project released a scathing statement objecting to the group’s proposed mandatory drug screening and education for people cited for possession, likening it to “forcing people into treatment programs and throwing them into marijuana ‘education’ camps.”

“The proposal is on par with forcing every alcohol user into treatment at their own cost or at a cost to the state,” MPP spokesman Mason Tvert said. “In fact, it would be less logical, because the science is clear that marijuana is far less toxic, less addictive, and less likely to be associated with acts of violence.”

The reform group also suggested hypocrisy on the part of Kennedy, “whose family made a fortune selling alcohol.” (His grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was involved in alcohol distribution—including, some maintain, illegally, during Prohibition.) “If this group truly cares about public health, it should be providing the public with facts regarding the relative harms of marijuana and discouraging the use of the more harmful product,” Tvert said. MPP has also launched an online petition calling on Kennedy to drop out of SAM. More than 5,000 people had signed it within the first days of its posting.

Others have delivered their message more directly, including Terry Franklin, a long-time pot reform activist from Amherst. In a public letter to Kennedy, Franklin urged him to step off the “hideous path” he’s embarked on with SAM.

“Social ‘sciences,’ with their psychobabble and ‘studies,’ deserve skepticism, often having little to do with science, and a whole lot to do with political agendas,” Franklin wrote. “But, even granting for a moment that there are ‘addictive personalities’ affected by ‘triggers,’ and that the cause is nature (‘genetics’) rather than nurture ... would your answer be to prohibit alcohol as well, in order to protect your infant son from following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather? Oh, right, we already tried that, didn’t we.…”

Kennedy, Franklin went on, seems to have “ fallen under the sway of people who can only be described as bigots. Please try to shake them off. Don’t let them drive you to impose suffering on the children of millions of other people.”e_SBlt

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