The passage of marijuana legalization measures by voters in Colorado and Washington in November has sparked interest in marijuana policy like never before, and now it has sparked the formation of a new group dedicated to fighting a rearguard action to stop legalization from spreading further.
The group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM or Project SAM) has among its "leadership team" liberal former Rhode Island Democratic congressman and self-admitted oxycodone and alcohol addict Patrick Kennedy and conservative commentator David Frum. It also includes professional neo-prohibitionist Dr. Kevin Sabet and a handful of medical researchers. It describes itself as a project of the Policy Solutions Lab, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, a drug policy consulting firm headed by Sabet.
SAM emphasizes a public health approach to marijuana, but when it comes to marijuana and the law, its prescriptions are a mix of the near-reasonable and the around-the-bend. Rational marijuana policy, SAM says, precludes relying "only on the criminal justice system to address people whose only crime is smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana" and the group calls for small-time possession to be decriminalized, but "subject to a mandatory health screening an marijuana-education program." The SAM version of decrim also includes referrals to treatment "if needed" and probation for up to a year "to prevent further drug use."
But it also calls for an end to NYPD-style "stop and frisk" busts and the expungement of arrest records for marijuana possession. SAM calls for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana cultivation or distribution, but wants those offenses to remain "misdemeanors or felonies based on the amount possessed."
For now, SAM advocates a zero-tolerance approach to marijuana and driving, saying "driving with any amount of marijuana in one's system should be at least a misdemeanor" and should result in a "mandatory health assessment, marijuana education program, and referral to treatment or social services." If a scientifically-based impairment level is established, SAM calls for driving at or above that level to be at least a misdemeanor.
Less controversially, SAM advocates for increased emphasis on education and prevention. It also calls for early screening for marijuana use and limited intervention "for those who not progressed to full marijuana addiction."
For a taste of SAM's kinder, gentler, neo-prohibitionist rhetoric, David Frum's Monday CNN column is instructive. "We don't want to lock people up for casual marijuana use -- or even stigmatize them with an arrest record," he writes. "But what we do want to do is send a clear message: Marijuana use is a bad choice."
Marijuana use may be okay for some "less vulnerable" people, Frum writes, but we're not all as good at handling modern life as he is.
"But we need to recognize that modern life is becoming steadily more dangerous for people prone to make bad choices," he argues. "At a time when they need more help than ever to climb the ladder, marijuana legalization kicks them back down the ladder. The goal of public policy should not be to punish vulnerable kids for making life-wrecking mistakes. The goal of public policy should be to protect (to the extent we can) the vulnerable from making life-wrecking mistakes in the first place."
Marijuana legalization advocates are having none of it. And they level the charge of hypocrisy in particular at Kennedy, whose family made its fortune selling alcohol. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has called on Kennedy to explain why he wants to keep "an objectively less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal" and has created an online petition calling on him to offer an explanation or resign as chairman of SAM.
"Former Congressman Kennedy's proposal is the definition of hypocrisy," said MPP communications director Mason Tvert. "He is living in part off of the fortune his family made by selling alcohol while leading a campaign that makes it seem like marijuana -- an objectively less harmful product -- is the greatest threat to public health. He personally should know better."
Nor did Tvert think much of SAM's insistence that marijuana users need treatment.
"The proposal is on par with forcing every alcohol user into treatment at their own cost or at a cost to the state. 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," Tvert said.
"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. "Why on earth would they want keep a less harmful alternative to alcohol illegal? Former Congressman Kennedy and his organization should answer this question before calling on our government to start forcing people into treatment programs and throwing them into marijuana re-education camps."
Project SAM is out of step with current public opinion, said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre.
"There really aren’t that many people publicly opposing marijuana law reform these days," St. Pierre noted. "The fact that a liberal like Patrick Kennedy is joining with a conservative like David Frum speaks to a mainstream disconnect. Both these guys are seen as mainstream, but three-quarters of the population support medical marijuana and decriminalization, half the country supports legalization, and we know that in two states, 55% voted for legalization. I can't speak to why they're so politically tone deaf."
"Kevin Sabet recognizes the old approach is just done for -- just saying marijuana turns you into an addict is no longer working," MPP's Tvert told the Chronicle. "This is a thinly veiled attempt to maintain marijuana prohibition by appealing to the sensibilities of people who recognize it’s a failure. They are clutching at straws. If they truly think people shouldn’t have their lives ruined for marijuana, they shouldn’t be proposing it be kept illegal."
"We are well past the epoch of the A.M. Rosenthals and the Joe Califanos," said St. Pierre, referring to ardent drug warriors of yore. "The mainstream media has moved away from the type of Reefer Madness that Frum and Kennedy are trying to engage in," he said. "Their advocacy is based on Kevin Sabet's rhetoric, and it's an extension of a failed policy. They're trying to buy time and delay marijuana law reform."
The political terrain has undergone a seismic shift with the November election results, and the rhetorical terrain has been shifting (reality not so much) away from drug war talk under the Obama administration. Now, Project SAM can join drug czar Kerlikowske is hoping talking more gently can thwart the progress of marijuana legalization.
Drug Wars Chronicle
January 10, 2013