Following the recent breakthrough in drug policy reform (decriminalisation of marijuana in Washington and Colorado) opponents of the reform movement have been carefully considering their next move. For Kevin Sabet, former White House drug policy adviser, a new plan of action developed after a conversation with a former Democratic Representative and recovered addict.
Kevin Sabet, [...] an outspoken opponent of legalizing marijuana, watched with dismay last fall as voters in Washington and Colorado did just that.
But the next day he got a call from former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. The son of late Sen. Ted Kennedy was worried that the votes sent the wrong message about marijuana.
“The level of his concern impressed me,” Sabet recalled. “He said, `We have to do something that is not falling into this false dichotomy of prohibition versus legalization.’”
So began the regrouping of the anti-pot lobby, an effort which on Thursday launches a new organization, Project SAM, for “smart approaches to marijuana.”
Project SAM bears similarities to the reform movement. For example, they call for some liberalisation of laws surrounding possession, and would also have addicts referred to treatment and instigate an education programme.
However, the project would still have recreational use of the drug legally prohibited, albeit with civil penalties rather than criminal convictions. This would leave intact the current black market controlled by dangerous criminals, which is precisely what the reform movement supported by the Beckley Foundation seeks to avoid.
Instead, we promote a system whereby the least harmful uses are permitted, and whereby access to the substance is controlled by a strictly regulated market. Evidence from countries that have experimented with decriminalisation suggests that this results in a decreased demand for illicit cannabis sourced from the criminal market.
Other reform advocates have criticised the new movement:
“It’s almost `Reefer Madness’-type stuff about marijuana he’s saying,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s something remarkable about Patrick Kennedy deciding to go after users of a drug that is by almost all accounts less dangerous than the drugs he struggled with. Where Patrick Kennedy could have made a really important contribution is by saying that we need a responsible public health model for dealing with legal marijuana.”
Nadelmann described Project SAM as a “strategic retreat” by the just-say-no crowd.
Alison Holcomb, the drug policy director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter and I-502′s campaign manager, said she’s as concerned as anyone else about the public-health ramifications of legal marijuana, and that’s why the initiative requires new surveys of drug use among teens and earmarks money for substance abuse prevention and treatment.
And, she said, Kennedy and Sabet offer no suggestions for dealing with the dangerous black market that supplies the nation’s vigorous appetite for pot.
On Project Sam’s website is a “Wish List” outlining it’s aims. One of these is “To inform public policy with the science of today’s marijuana.” However, Patrick Kennedy is accused in the article of cherry-picking studies to distort the evidence so that it supports his standpoint.
Also on the wishlist is: “To prevent the establishment of Big Marijuana that would market marijuana to children — and to prevent Big Tobacco from taking over Big Marijuana. Those are the very likely results of legalization.” This thin end of the wedge argument is intended to scare people into support and hails directly from prohibitionism. This scaremongering does nothing to further the debate whilst simultaneously misrepresenting the truth.
Furthermore the strict regulation approach, as advocated by most serious reformists, would most likely model marijuana regulation on lessons learned from the tobacco industry. Nowadays that means responsible age restrictions and rigorously-enforced bans on harmful marketing tactics – slightly undermining Patrick Kennedy’s ‘Big Tobacco’ Scare Capitals.
Although Project Sam offers an alternative to the status quo brought about by the War on Drugs, it falls short of striving for greatest harm-reduction based on carefully considered and evaluated evidence.