At the very least, addiction treatment leaders’ involvement in the policy issue of marijuana legalization must include preparing for an influx of patients that more liberal laws will inevitably generate, says the co-founder of an advocacy organization that seeks a middle ground between a criminalization stance toward marijuana offenses and outright legalization.
“We’re undertaking the most radical public policy change in addiction in 100 years,” says Kevin Sabet, PhD, a former senior adviser at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) who on the day after legalization ballot items were passed in Colorado and Washington last November found himself in conversations that would lead to the establishment of Project SAM: Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Sabet’s other co-founder is former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who called Sabet with his concerns immediately after the election results in Colorado and Washington became known. Sabet says he and Kennedy formed the organization over frustration that the marijuana policy debate has been framed nationally as one with only two viable positions: support for outright legalization or the desire for strict enforcement that leads to mass incarceration.
“We’re the first group out there saying that you don’t have to be in favor of putting people in jail to be against legalization,” says Sabet.
Sabet and Ben Cort, a Project SAM board member who spearheaded an advocacy effort against Colorado’s initiative last year and recently became part of the business development team at the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR) in his state, will participate in what promises to be a lively panel discussion on marijuana policy at this September’s National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD), sponsored by Vendome Group (www.addictionpro.com/ncad-conference/plenary-speakers). Also joining Sabet and Cort for the Sept. 24 panel discussion will be Amanda Reiman, California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has supported initiatives such as the measures adopted last November in Colorado and Washington and defeated in Oregon.
More battles to come
Sabet says that even with numerous questions surrounding the progress of the Colorado and Washington initiatives, including uncertainty over the extent to which the federal government might block implementation, efforts already are under way to bring marijuana legalization to voters in numerous other states. He says Alaska has been targeted for the 2014 ballot, and other states where such measures could appear include Nevada and a majority of the New England states.
Sabet explains Project SAM’s mission as having four pillars:
· Getting information to the general public about the public health consequences of marijuana use, including data indicating that 1 in 6 individuals who try marijuana in their youth will become addicted.
· Arguing against the stigmatization of individuals based on offenses involving small amounts of marijuana.
· Combating the emergence of an industry around marijuana cultivation and distribution that could mimic the development of “Big Tobacco.”
· Advocating additional research into non-smoked cannabinoid drugs with therapeutic potential in the treatment of various medical conditions. Sabet believes the government should identify obstacles to this research and should do more to ensure that the necessary studies take place.
Sabet believes that treatment professionals also fall victim to misinformation during policy discussions around marijuana. He says groups that back legalization will “put their treatment hat on” when they’re talking to treatment professionals about marijuana policy, but when opponents of legalization bring up the need for treatment these same groups downplay the prevalence of treatment needs associated with marijuana use.
He says Project SAM was established as a nonprofit advocacy organization and already has seen or is about to see formation of state-based chapters in Hawaii, Vermont and Massachusetts. Leaders in treatment, prevention and law enforcement tend to be the driving forces behind establishment of these state units, he says.
Sabet also says Kennedy has played an ongoing important role in elevating Project SAM’s profile. “I have been struck by Patrick’s level of involvement,” Sabet says.