You might think the issue of marijuana legalization had been settled, at least as far as Coloradans were concerned. Turns out some people aren’t so sure, and one of them is former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy.
When someone named Kennedy starts an organization to fight against the legalization of marijuana, people notice. Some legalization supporters are not amused.
Kennedy’s group was officially launched in Denver Thursday. Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, opposes legalization but says it wants to see small-time marijuana users receive education and treatment. A Colorado spin-off will be launched later this month.
At this point, board member and co-founder Kevin Sabet says, the organization has no funding and is run entirely by volunteers. Sabet, a well-known opponent of legalization, is director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and has served under both presidents Obama and George W. Bush as a drug policy adviser.
“There is a false dichotomy between incarceration and legalization,” he said.
Asked why Project SAM would choose Denver as its launching pad, Sabet says he suspects the people of Colorado weren’t fully informed when they voted to legalize marijuana in November.
“I think a lot of people saw it as an either/or situation without realizing there might be something in between incarceration and legalization. The story in Colorado has not been completed and it is important for people to know there are alternatives.”
Sabet says his group is looking to chart a middle way recognizing that, while some aspects of U.S. drug policy have been less than successful, the alternative is not legalization but better drug policies that emphasize treatment over incarceration.
Mason Tvert, who ran the Colorado campaign for legalization before going to work for the Marijuana Policy Project, laughed at the idea that Coloradans didn’t know what they were voting for.
“There were two years of discussion culminating in a vote that demonstrated exactly what the people want. [Project SAM] just wants to keep marijuana completely illegal. This is a thinly veiled attempt to keep marijuana illegal,” he said.
“This is just the latest in a long line of prohibitionist nonsense,” added attorney Brian Vicente who co-chaired the campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado. “It is fundamentally insulting to the voters of Colorado, who knew the facts and made an informed choice in November. The election was a referendum against everything Sabet has been pushing for years.”
Project SAM’s website lists a number of policy goals. It is this one that gets a rise out of Tvert:
“That possession or use of a small amount of marijuana be a civil offense subject to a mandatory health screening and marijuana-education program. Referrals to treatment and/or social-support services should be made if needed. The individual could even be monitored for 6-12 months in a probation program designed to prevent further drug use.”
Tvert said it would be more useful to force alcohol or tobacco users into treatment. “The science is clear that marijuana is less harmful to users than alcohol or tobacco,” he said.
“It makes no sense to force adults into treatment for something they don’t have a problem with,” added Vicente.
Sabet said the idea for the group came the morning after voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana.
“Patrick called me and he was very concerned about how legalization could effect people who are in treatment for drug problems or in recovery,” he said.
Some critics ask where Kennedy was when marijuana was illegal.
“He could have been pushing education then,” said Art Way, senior drug policy manager of the Colorado Drug Policy Alliance.
Kennedy has acknowledged past problems with his use of cocaine, Oxycontin and alcohol.
“With his personal experience in prescription drug abuse, maybe Kennedy’s time would be better spent working on issues he has experience with, like helping to prevent the diversion of prescription drugs,” Way said.
In Colorado, Sabet said the organization – to be called Smart Colorado — will be run by Bob Doyle, who is the executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance. Doyle said the group will be formally launched toward the end of January.
Smart Colorado aims to start a public conversation about the health consequences of marijuana use, among other things. Doyle said there had really been no such conversation prior to November’s vote. “It was very one-sided. We really didn’t hear any of the reasons not to legalize marijuana,” he said, acknowledging that whatever dialogue he wants to start now might have been better started years ago.
In fact, Smart Colorado was also the name used by legalization opponents prior to November’s election.
While he doesn’t rule out trying to ultimately overturn the law, he said in the short-term the group will be focused on educating people about marijuana and trying to help the state, cities and counties to craft rules and regulations designed to reduce marijuana use.
“The law has been passed, so now we really just want to reduce the harm that is caused by 64,” Sabet said.
Like the national organization it is spun from, he said the Colorado group has no money yet and is entirely driven by volunteers. “We will be doing some fundraising,” he noted.
Image of Kevin Sabet courtesy of Sabet.