By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Citing his own history of addiction and asserting that today’s marijuana “is not your Woodstock weed,” Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, launched a new national public health battle against pot legalization in Denver Thursday.
The new group is called Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. The founders are trying to appeal to both the left and the right with Kennedy attracting progressives and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum appealing to conservatives and libertarians. The group aims to disseminate the latest research on health impacts of marijuana, to speed access and development of safe marijuana-based drugs for cancer or multiple sclerosis patients who benefit from marijuana, and to stop saddling young pot users with felonies that mar their lives forever and instead give them treatment.
A Colorado chapter called Smart Colorado also launched this week and its members plan to raise public health concerns as Colorado’s legislature implements Amendment 64, the voter-approved measure that legalized marijuana in November. An 18-year veteran of the anti-tobacco wars, Bob Doyle of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, will chair the Smart Colorado chapter.
Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island, said he, like his mother, suffers from bipolar disorder and is certain that his father suffered from PTSD after experiencing the assassinations of two brothers within five years in the 1960s. Kennedy said he learned at an early age from his family to self-medicate. He has acknowledged using a variety of drugs including pot and cocaine since his teen years and had a recent public battle with OxyContin. Now Kennedy sees the movement to legalize pot as a public health threat.
“We’re concerned about the mad rush to legalization in this country,” Kennedy said. He said there’s currently a false dichotomy in the U.S.: “lock ’em up or let ’em use.”
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Instead, he and fellow leaders of the group say they want to prevent a 21st century tobacco-style business that markets pot to kids. They say they want to find a “middle ground” where users — including a disproportionate number of young teens and men of color — get treatment instead of rap sheets. Kennedy said there’s a way to sensibly modify current U.S. drug policies without opening the floodgates to retail pot shops.
While acknowledging that Colorado is unlikely to reverse its vote for legalization, the group wants to halt legalization in the next wave of targeted states from Rhode Island to Vermont while also convincing the Obama administration and members of Congress that full legalization is not the right course of action.
Kennedy said today’s high-potency marijuana is “five to 20 times stronger” than weed of the past. He believes it’s irresponsible to condone mass marketing of pot and a permissive culture for users when our country has failed to adequately address the public health costs of the most commonly used drugs: alcohol and tobacco use.
Furthermore, he expects tobacco corporations to jump into the marijuana business while drug cartels will continue to fight for marijuana turf. SAM activists expect both legitimate and black market distributors to target kids and minorities living in poor neighborhoods.
“While we know more than we’ve ever known about the severity and epidemic of addiction and mental health in our society, we are in the midst of a major push on behalf of those who would like to legalize marijuana in our country,” Kennedy said.
“We need a more enlightened, thorough and thoughtful policy debate. We need to bring in the experts and the public health officials and let them have a say.”
Marijuana proponents say Kennedy’s group is hardly promoting “middle ground.”
“They’re promoting an extreme which is keeping marijuana entirely illegal,” said Mason Tvert, who led the successful campaign for retail pot legalization in Colorado.
“The middle ground is regulating marijuana and controlling its production and sales.”
Tvert contends that alcohol and tobacco use cost the public far more than marijuana and that it’s “extremely hypocritical” of Kennedy to wage a war on marijuana when the Kennedy family made its fortune in part through the sale of alcohol.
Kennedy said the personal attacks on him and how his relatives made money three generations ago are irrelevant. Instead, he hopes that bringing his name to the cause will help focus public attention on the public health costs of addiction.
Both Kennedy and Kevin Sabet, who served in Obama’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy until 2011, said national leaders did not expect marijuana measures to pass in Colorado and Washington and were caught off guard.
“Now they see a 300 mph freight train to disaster,” said Sabet, now an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine and one of the leaders of SAM.
“We know that big business has their eyes on this (the marijuana business). We want to at least engage this country in a calm adult conversation that talks about science,” said Sabet,
Tvert, however, believes the group is trying to control adult behavior.
“If this group was talking about education and possible treatment for teens, we would not be objecting. We would work with them,” Tvert said. “They’re not just talking about teens. They’re talking about every person who uses marijuana.”
During a Thursday press conference at the Denver Press Club announcing the SAM launch, Colorado doctors who have studied marijuana and addiction said use is rising among young people while their perceptions of its danger are going down.
Dr. Chris Thurstone, an adolescent psychiatrist and expert on the impacts of marijuana use on the brain, said referrals for drug treatment in Denver have risen 50 percent just since September. Of those referrals, he said 95 percent are for marijuana use. Thurstone is a researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who also runs substance abuse treatment program at Denver Health.
“When we talk about marijuana, we’re talking about adolescents and children,” Thurstone said. “About 58 percent of all new users are under the age of 18 with 2.4 million people using marijuana for the first time every year.”
The younger people are when they start using marijuana, the more likely they are to become addicted, Thurstone said. What’s more, the newest research shows that developing brain is more vulnerable to the long-term potential effects of marijuana.
Dr. Paula Riggs, a clinical researcher at the University of Colorado, said one in 15 high school seniors now smokes marijuana daily while research is showing that from about age 10 into the late 20s, “your brain is under construction.”
She said the newest research from New Zealand shows that regular marijuana use at a young age has long-term “neurotoxic effects.’
“It shaves 6 to 8 percentage points off your adult IQ. I’m always astounded by how few people know about this research. We’re not just talking about daily users. We’re talking as little as once a week.
“I’m pretty worried. Legalization gives the impression of social sanctioning. Every time that happens, use goes up as does availability to our kids.”
For Kennedy, the battle is personal.
“Nine out of 10 addicts started when they were teens. My mother battled publicly with alcohol and also suffers from bipolar disorder, as do I. My father obviously had severe PTSD,” he said.
“I started self-medicating early for my anxiety and depression because that’s what I saw around me. Only later in life did I realize that I did not have the right direction early on. I’m lucky to be in recovery now.”
But Kennedy expects to fight a lifelong battle since he believes he has a genetic predisposition toward addiction.
“What triggered (my addiction) was an environment which said it was permissible to experiment and self-medicate. That affected my own neurodevelopment. My ability to put the stop on these decisions wasn’t my own.”
Kennedy said he has long since quit worrying about his public image and instead is now preoccupied with public health.
He believes Coloradans may not have voted for legalization based on full knowledge of how it would play out or what the latest science shows about pot use.
“I want to slow this train down and begin a discussion before other states rush to judgment.”