(EDITOR'S NOTE: Four leaders who in recent months have been active in the effort to oppose marijuana legalization initiatives have co-authored a call to action for the treatment and recovery community. We present this article in sections authored by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy; Project SAM co-founder Kevin Sabet, PhD; CeDAR executive director Steven Millette, and CeDAR business development manager Ben Cort.)
The elephant in the room
Health advocates breathed an exhausted sigh of relief in 2008 when Congress passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA). It took years of intense political fighting, including some “close-but-not-yet-there” disappointments, to end what was essentially government-sanctioned discrimination by insurance companies against patients with substance use and psychiatric disorders. With the passage of this law, insurance companies were required to apply the same reimbursement policies to the treatment of psychiatric disorders as to medical illnesses.
But we know our work is far from over.
The parity rules that are being implemented will define what this actually means. To paraphrase my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, the passage of MHPAEA was “an end, as well as a beginning.”
The task now falls to all of us—regulators, advocates, citizens—to complete this unfinished work. We must cement in our statutes the rights of those with behavioral illness and banish discrimination in healthcare.
But there is an elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. It is something directly tied to the furtherance of mental illness and it is something we are perpetually turning a blind eye to: marijuana. According to every credible scientific source, marijuana use has a direct impact on mental illness, and that is why I could not stay silent on the issue any longer.
And, we appeal, neither can any of you.
We are not talking about furthering a “war on drugs” or any policies that have led to mass incarceration. We are not talking about supporting the private prison industrial complex. Rather, we are talking about stopping what is fast becoming the “Big Tobacco” of our time—“Big Marijuana,” ushered in by legalization as in the ballot items passed in Colorado and Washington in 2012.
Legalization seems to be the buzzword of the day. From coast to coast, loosening marijuana laws is a hot topic of conversation in both households and statehouses. Promising everything from an end to high incarceration rates to a significant reduction in criminal revenues, legalization advocates, aided by billionaires supporting their cause, have helped to rapidly change public attitudes about marijuana over the past 10 years.
But these attitudes are often premised on a false dichotomy. “Incarceration or legalization?” “Lock 'em up” or “Let 'em use?” These phrases have dominated the discussion about marijuana over the past decade. As a result, 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 in the United States.