WASHINGTON — Stung by momentum to legalize marijuana, opponents are fighting back with an unlikely leader: a recovering drug addict and liberal ex-congressman from Rhode Island named Patrick Kennedy, a member of the famous political clan.
“I cannot be silent, and I don’t imagine anyone else could be silent if they knew the facts as I know the facts — and all I’m trying to do is get those facts to the broader public,” said Kennedy, son of the late Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Spreading the word, Kennedy is traveling the country as chairman of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), which he formed in January and which now has affiliates in five states.
No stranger to substance abuse, Kennedy long ago made public his battle with depression and alcohol and drug abuse, including an addiction to the pain reliever OxyContin. In 2006, he fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed his car into a barrier near the U.S. Capitol. His problems forced him to retire from the House of Representatives.
In an interview, Kennedy said he has smoked marijuana, but not much.
“In spite of the fact that I’m also an asthmatic, I did try and experiment with marijuana, but I quickly migrated to other drugs and alcohol,” he said.
He also once backed using marijuana as medicine. “I now stand corrected by the science,” said the 45-year-old Kennedy.
After making a mark in Congress promoting mental health, Kennedy said he wasn’t surprised by the legalization votes in Washington state and Colorado in 2012 or by polls showing increased acceptance of marijuana.
“They’re votes and they’re polls that reflect my early opinions and viewpoints, which were uneducated,” Kennedy said. “When you don’t have the facts and when you don’t have the public policy experts, then what you have is a vacuum where anecdote and opinion become public policy and reality. And that’s dangerous.”
Kennedy said he’s partly to blame for the rush to legalize because he didn’t speak out sooner. But he said he didn’t understand the big picture until he began working with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Research now makes it clear that marijuana is a gateway drug that can induce psychosis and cause teens to lose IQ points they’ll never recover, creating “devastating health consequences,” he said.
Mason Tvert, spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, called Kennedy a hypocrite.
“His family made millions off the sale of alcohol, and we hope that he and his organization recognize that marijuana is far less harmful and that adults should not face penalties just for using it,” said Tvert, adding that Kennedy wants to force marijuana users into “education camps.”
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, another pro-legalization group, said Kennedy is relying on arguments from a past generation: “Most of the stuff he’s saying is about 20 to 30 years old.”
“Over a 40-year period, there have been dozens to hundreds of anti-marijuana groups — most of them don’t really last very long and they don’t have much success,” St. Pierre said. “We have to see in a year or two or three if Project SAM is going to be around, or is it just a flash in the pan?”
Kennedy said he understands the shots.
“We’re a truth-telling organization,” he said. “Their biggest threat is that people will find out the truth. So it’s not Patrick Kennedy they need to be worried about — it’s the truth.”
Kennedy called the legalization effort “a knee-jerk reaction” and said it will lead to more teens smoking pot, making more of them susceptible to addiction. And with marijuana use surpassing tobacco use among teens, Kennedy said they face a greater risk because of the rising potency of the drug.
“This isn’t your Woodstock weed,” he said. “This is genetically modified marijuana that is more closer to hashish. And its impact on brain development, especially if teenagers are using it, is profound and permanent.”
In February, Kennedy asked Attorney General Eric Holder to enforce federal law and not allow Colorado and Washington to sell and tax marijuana.
“I woke up after the last election and saw there’s kind of a wrinkle in the whole environment dealing with mental health and addiction. … It was hard to ignore that we’re moving in the opposite direction,” said Kennedy.
He called his early support of medical marijuana “tragically flawed,” adding: “I no longer have the comfort of my own uneducated opinion on this.”
Since leaving Congress two years ago, Kennedy has focused on promoting research of the brain and mental disorders. At a White House mental health conference this month, President Barack Obama said that millions of Americans have found it easier to get mental health treatment because of Kennedy’s work.
While the president didn’t mention Kennedy’s anti-marijuana campaign, Kennedy said the issue must be part of any discussion of mental health.
“We can’t have a dialogue about improving mental health among kids and ignore this new threat to our kids’ mental health,” he said.
By year’s end, Project SAM expects to be operating in 13 states, said Kevin Sabet, the group’s executive director and a former White House drug policy adviser. It already has affiliates in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont and Rhode Island.
Kennedy’s trips will take him to two big pro-marijuana states: In 1996, California became the first of 18 to legalize medical marijuana, and in November Washington joined Colorado as the first to approve marijuana for recreational use. Kennedy will announce new affiliates July 1 in San Diego and July 10 in Seattle. After that, Sabet said, more affiliates will follow in Missouri, New York, Oregon, New Hampshire, Indiana and Maine.
Sabet said the group will keep “a watchful eye” on Washington state but has no plans to push for a repeal there.
“There’s a budding industry that intends to follow the same playbook as Big Tobacco and make money off of other people’s addictions — and we really want to prevent that from happening,” said Sabet, an assistant professor and director of the University of Florida’s Drug Policy Institute.
Added Kennedy: “If we didn’t like Joe Camel, believe me, we’re not going to like what Big Marijuana is already doing.”
Kennedy has won a key endorsement from former President Jimmy Carter, who fears that legalized marijuana will be marketed to children. But legalization backers accuse Kennedy of using old scare tactics and question whether he’ll have staying power.