June 24, 2013

Patrick Kennedy now leads fight against legalizing pot

By Rob Hotakainen / McClatchy Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

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Vice President Joe Biden stands with former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy as he speaks at the closing of the National Conference on Mental Health on June 3, 2013, in Washington.

AP

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.

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