DENVER–Colorado pot advocates were anything but mellow Thursday as former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) unveiled a national and state effort to highlight the public-health drawbacks of marijuana.
Kennedy, a scion of the prominent Democratic family from Massachusetts, announced the launch of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), described as a bipartisan alliance aimed at promoting science-based marijuana information for public-policy development.
“Project SAM was created because we were concerned about the mad rush to legalization in this country and the false dichotomy presented as policy,” said Kennedy. “Incarceration or legalization. Lock ‘em up or let ‘em use. This is not where we want this debate to devolve to . . . We need a more enlightened, thorough and thoughtful discussion and policy debate.”
Not surprisingly, Kennedy took some jabs from critics over his famous family’s connection to the liquor business.
Mason Tvert, who led the successful 2012 campaign to legalize marijuana, beat Kennedy to the media punch by holding a press conference outside the Denver Press Club just prior to the former Democratic congressman’s event.
“Why is it that someone who is an heir to an alcohol fortune would want to keep an alternative to alcohol that’s less harmful illegal?” said Tvert. “This is an effort to keep marijuana illegal when the public is overwhelmingly stating to recognize that it doesn’t work.”
Tvert displayed a sign that purported to compare “Marijuana Sold by Stores” and “Alcohol Sold by Patrick Kennedy’s Grandfather.”
“This illustrates how much this debate has devolved,” said Kennedy. “Somehow this is now trying to become a personalized assault on me as a figurehead in this, when I readily said at the beginning I want you to listen to the public-health folks.”
The launch of Project SAM may have come about three months too late, given that Colorado and Washington voters approved in November limited, regulated, recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older.
Kennedy said the election came as a wake-up call for him. The more he learned about the campaign, he said, the more he became convinced that the voters hadn’t received enough information about the medical and public-health pitfalls of marijuana use, particularly for adolescents.
“Like everyone else, I woke up after election day and saw that this was moving so fast in states like Washington and Colorado and it looked as though the domino effect is that it could move even quicker in other states,” said Kennedy. “What I want is to slow this train down and kind of begin a discussion before other states rush to judgment, which is what I think happened here.”
Former White House drug-policy advisor Kevin Sabet said it’s not too late, given that the Justice Department has yet to decide how to proceed with enforcing drug laws in the two states. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the department has allowed states to proceed with medical-marijuana laws.
“This story is just now being written and the book is not completed yet,” said Sabet. “The federal government and Congress has determined marijuana is illegal has not discussed how they will use their resources to enforce federal law in the states. So I wouldn’t say the train’s left the station completely, even in Colorado.”
At the same time, Sabet said the group did not intend to push for a repeal of Amendment 64, but instead hoped to influence state policy now being drawn up by the governor’s task force on implementing marijuana legalization.
Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, said he would head up the group’s state chapter, SMART Colorado. More information on its plans would be available in the next month, he said.
Other Coloradans involved with Project SAM include Dr. Chris Thurstone of Denver Health, who sits on the task force, and Dr. Paula Riggs, director of the division of substance dependence at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Diane Carlson, a volunteer with the No on 64 camp, said there was no broad public debate on marijuana legalization during the campaign, thanks to the noise surrounding the presidential race and lack of involvement by public officials.
“There was a group trying to get information out. It was poorly funded. There was no money. You couldn’t get anyone on the bandwagon,” said Carlson.
Tvert objected to Project SAM’s attempt to sway state policy on marijuana regulation. “They’re trying to inject themselves into regulatory decisions being made here in Colorado,” he said.