The quarterbacks of the new anti-drugs movement
A member of the Kennedy political dynasty, Patrick Kennedy was a chief sponsor of the seminal 2008 US Mental Health Parity Act, which required most insurance plans to cover the treatment of mental illnesses on an equitable level to physical illnesses. He retired from politics in 2011 with a goal of using his time to help implement it – but saw instead the “elephant in the room”: the $100million+ movement to legalise drugs. “The unmentionable elephant in the room is that our countries are living in denial of the addiction and mental illness around this issue, and the harm to children.” He was “excited” to meet a like mind in Kevin Sabet and together they founded SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, in January last year. They reveal their motivation.
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Why are we doing this? It would be a lot easier not to have the headaches and hate-mail that come with fighting legalisation. But we want to safeguard the next generation, to protect our children. We want to stop the creation of the next Big Tobacco.
We don’t have the $100million megaphone of the pro-legalisation lobby figureheaded by Nathan Edelman and George Soros. So not enough people know the truth. Just as the tobacco industry put out false science when it started, so does the marijuana industry. We must bridge the gap between the public misunderstanding of the drug and the scientific understanding. We must give information to decision-makers so that they have the courage to go forward.
We don’t want to replace one public-health tragedy with another one.
Having said that, people are beginning to recognise that Big Marijuana, like Big Tobacco, is an industry that relies on addiction for profits. It is sending people to hospital emergency rooms as you read this. They will profit over people who have no voice, or the budget for a voice.
Our two choices are not “lock ‘em up or legalise”. That is a false dichotomy. We need a real conversation about pot instead. Families deserve that. “Incarceration or legalisation?” “Lock ‘em up, or let ‘em loose?” … These phrases have dominated the discussion about marijuana over the past decade. As a result, marijuana-legalisation advocates — not scientists, doctors, people in recovery, disadvantaged communities or young people affected by marijuana use and its policies — have been at the forefront of changing marijuana laws.
So we founded Project SAM to consist of experts and knowledgeable professionals advocating for a fresh approach that neither legalises, nor demonises, marijuana. We are a nonpartisan alliance of lawmakers, scientists and other concerned citizens who want to move beyond simplistic discussions of “incarceration versus legalisation” when discussing marijuana use, and instead focus on practical changes in marijuana policy. We support a treatment, health-first marijuana policy.
CONFRONTING PRESIDENT OBAMA…
In January, the US president commented that marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol, which led to an international media frenzy in support of global legalisation of the drug. On 22 January, we took the decision to release a statement about this, as follows.
“We at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, joined by leaders of major medical associations, recognise that marijuana legalisation goes against the President’s own goals of effective education and health care reform. We have identified many of the same problems with marijuana legalisation that he acknowledged when quizzed about his views of the drug by a reporter for The New Yorker. Chief among them: the legalisation of marijuana leads quickly to a slippery slope that could open the gates to legalisation – and commercialisation – of other addictive substances for recreational use. Clearly, the President knows that, for decades, several of today’s largest pro-marijuana-legalisation groups have been advocating for the full-scale legalisation of all recreational drugs, including psychedelics and cocaine.
“As the President noted, the case for marijuana legalisation is overstated. As parts of the US plunge headlong into ill-informed drug policies rooted in opinions, political agendas and corporate greed, the President astutely notes that it is a matter of time before we’re also asked to consider the legalisation of a “negotiated dose of cocaine” or “a finely calibrated dose of meth”. That is the nature of addiction and substance abuse. It leads to the next problem, and the next problem and the next – and many times, the damage is irreversible and irreparable.
“However, we take issue with the President’s comparisons between marijuana and alcohol, and we strongly encourage him – a president who has, on many occasions, championed rigorous science – to work closely with his senior drug policy advisors and scientists, who fully acknowledge the growing world body of science showing the harms of marijuana use to individuals and communities. Today’s marijuana is far more potent than the marijuana the President acknowledged using during his teens and early adulthood. The President must also stop to consider the highly concentrated – and increasingly popular – form of marijuana called “hash oil.” Doses of that oil often exceed 80% THC – which is essentially a different drug than the weed of Woodstock, which ranged around 1-3% THC.
“We should know better than to follow the same path by legalising a third, addictive substance that will inevitably be commercialised and marketed to children. Two wrongs don’t make a right: just because our already legal drugs may have very dangerous impacts on society it does not mean that other drugs should follow the same path.”
On 31 January, Obama stated on CNN that “If we start having a situation where big corporations with lots of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there, peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to rise further”.
Despite the hate mail we receive, we are doing something right. Perhaps the hate mail is because we are doing something right.
ALCOHOL vs MARIJUANA?
Coming back to the alcohol argument: what is the No 1 most dangerous drug? Alcohol. Why would we want to create another alcohol? This big, legal, ‘regulated’ business knows that 80% of its revenue comes from the 20% of people who abuse substances, the people who are most vulnerable, from people who shouldn’t be drinking any more. That is how they have marketed for decades. The people who will suffer most will be the most vulnerable, those who cause trouble to their communities – and cannot afford rehab when problems worsen. They are the target market for Big Pot.
People raise the issue of alcohol harms ‘versus’ marijuana harms. Yes, alcohol is worse when it comes to violence or liver damage. But marijuana is worse when it comes to IQ and loss of competitiveness and motivation, lung issues, mental health. Both cause traffic fatalities when drivers drug/drink drive. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Once we have an industry whose business it is to increase addiction, then we will have a public-health problem on our hands.
Legalisers constantly refer to people in prison for marijuana. But there are three times as many alcohol arrests as there are for marijuana; do we want marijuana arrests to soar to that level by legalising it? In the UK, only 0.2% of people in prison are there for marijuana offences alone; in the US it is also less than 1%.
What do we have to say about our legal drugs: alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs?
“600,000 deaths a year. A trillion dollars in the cost to society. And some of the most effective lobbies accessing governments.”
4TH WAVE OF LEGAL PHARMACEUTICALS
People have not woken up to what legalisation is all about. It would be the fourth wave of legal pharmaceuticals, following alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs. After the debate about marijuana legalisation, there will be debates about heroin legalisation, cocaine legalisation: in a TV interview, Edelman has publicly expressed his ambition to legalise all drugs.
People are beginning to wake up to the fact that legalising marijuana is not about ‘responsible’ adults using pot in the privacy of their own homes. It is about the pot shop in your neighbourhood, about the advertising being viewed by children – and this is an industry which cannot be tamed once it is unleashed. There is smuggling of drugs across state lines in Washington and Colorado; the black market is alive and well, undiminished by legalisation.
On 17 February, we announced that Conspire, a company that provides drug testing to businesses and schools via Alere Toxicology and others, found that the number of their clientele testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, rose 44% since December 2013. The announcement was made as we launched www.legalizationviolations.org to track legalisation’s effect in Colorado and Washington. With new data coming in every week to confirm that negative impact and the fuelling of drug use, it is important to have a central repository for tracking and collecting information.
We hope that other states and countries will pause and take note before they consider change so that we don’t have to relearn damaging lessons over and over again. While it is good to learn from experience, it is better to learn from other people’s experience!
Sadly, the marijuana conversation is mired with myths. Recent surveys show that many people do not think that marijuana can be addictive, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Many would be surprised to learn that the American Medical Association has come out strongly against the legal sales of marijuana, citing public health concerns. Its opinion is consistent with most major medical associations, including the American Academy of Paediatrics and American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Because today’s marijuana is at least 5-6 times stronger than the marijuana smoked by most of today’s parents, we are often shocked to hear that, according to the National Institutes of Health, one in six 16-year-olds who try marijuana will become addicted to it; marijuana intoxication doubles the risk of a car crash; heavy marijuana use has been significantly linked to an 8-point reduction in IQ; and marijuana use is strongly connected to mental illness.
Constantly downplaying the risks of marijuana, its advocates have promised reductions in crime, flowing tax revenue and little in the way of negative effects on youth. We shouldn’t hold our breath, though.
We can expect criminal organisations to adapt to legal prices, sell to people outside the legal market – children – and continue to profit from larger revenue sources, such as human trafficking and other drugs. If drugs become legal, criminals will not become saintly citizens overnight but merely change commodities, such as profiteering from human trafficking instead of drugs.
We can expect the social costs ensuing from increased marijuana use to greatly outweigh any tax revenue — witness the fact that tobacco and alcohol cost society $£10 for every $£1 gained in taxes. Probably worst of all, we can expect our teens to be bombarded with promotional messages from a new marijuana industry seeking lifelong customers.
In light of the currently skewed discourse on marijuana, these are difficult facts to digest. People have been promised great things with the legalisation experiment. They can expect to be let down.
What makes a person great is the power and ingenuity and imagination of their brain. Their brain is the single most important organ in the body. It is everything to who we are as human beings. Our countries should be doing better to protect our most vital natural resource: our brains. We should not consign the next generation to substandard opportunities, simply because we have not been grown-up enough to know that there are consequences to public policies which we did not consider. Every life is so important that it must be given the best chance.
Legalisation is not inevitable. We must remind people who struggle with addiction that they are not alone: we are with them. The APA, ASAM are with us. On the other side is an alliance of people who want to line their pockets with money from those are addicted. We cannot give up. We are in this for the long haul.
Intervene’s editor also recommends the best anti/pro-legalisation debate so far.
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A member of the Kennedy political dynasty, Patrick Kennedy was a chief sponsor of the seminal 2008 US Mental Health Parity Act, which required most insurance plans to cover treatment of mental illnesses on an equitable level with physical illnesses. He is a strong proponent of adding a comprehensive prescription-drug benefit to government-funded healthcare and advocates reorienting healthcare systems to preventive care. Awards for his work include the Society for Neuroscience Public Service Award (2002), American Psychoanalytic Association 2003 President’s Award, American Psychiatric Association Alliance award (2003) and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s Paul Wellstone Mental Health Award (2003). In 2008, Kennedy acknowledged having bipolar disorder and being a recovering alcoholic. He cofounded Project SAM – Smart Approaches to Marijuana – in January 2013 with Kevin Sabet and David Frum.
Kevin Sabet first came to attention when, aged 15, he publicly blasted a local school board for refusing to accept government funding for after-school anti-drug programmes. By 19, he had worked with NIDA director Alan Leshner on MDMA education; by 20, he had testimony on official White House record. He is assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. He was senior adviser for policy to White House Office of National Drug Control Policy 2009-2011, the only political appointee to serve in both the Obama and Bush Administrations; he also worked at ONDCP during the Clinton Administration. Last year, Rolling Stone called him “Legalisation Enemy #1” ahead of the US drug czar. He is a cofounder of Project SAM.