(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.)
Where SAM and CeDAR meet
In 2012 I felt compelled to leave my dream job with Phoenix Multisport so that I could dedicate all of my time to the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to defeat Colorado's Amendment 64, the change to our state Constitution that legalized marijuana and opened up my home state to mass commercialization of the drug.
In my own review of the language contained within A64 I was struck by the extremely aggressive nature of the bill, the shortsighted consideration given to actual implementation, and the clear social ramifications that I believed something this aggressive would bring. Having never been inclined toward politics before, I was naïve in my belief that something so audacious couldn't actually pass. When we started to see initial polls favoring the amendment, I knew that I had to get involved.
In many ways, leaving my position with Phoenix Multisport was the hardest professional decision I had ever made. To this day I love what the organization does and I am very proud of my role in helping to build it. However, as a parent and a member of the recovery community (sober since June 15, 1996), I knew that I had to act.
I reached out to the firm leading the “no” campaign and was quickly hired on and given a crash course in the political process. Within weeks I found myself taking part in live debates, speaking with the press, helping to build a huge coalition of those against the amendment, writing articles, and even knocking on doors to educate voters.
As a newcomer to the process I immediately noticed how a complex and nuanced discussion was broken down into sound bites and how the person who yelled the loudest was often heard over those with real expertise who stuck to the facts. The machine that we were up against was staggering: It was extremely well-financed and backed by national organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and NORML. While we enjoyed the full support of the medical and scientific community as well as the vast majority of political leaders in the state and nationally, we were a small group, and the other side had a war chest that we could not compete with. We were outspent by more than 10 to 1, and a majority of Coloradans voted to pass A64 in November 2012.
While we saw immediate changes in Colorado on a large scale that boiled down to a much more permissive view of the drug and the beginnings of a commercial effort that can only be compared to Big Tobacco's behavior in the 1940s and '50s, what I started to see personally was much more alarming. Young people across the state changed the way they perceived the drug, seeing it as a harmless substance or even something that was healthy and good for them to use. As the commercialization of marijuana exploded, it became harder to convince kids that weed was not helping them, let alone that it is very harmful from both a substance abuse and mental health/brain development standpoint.
As someone with firsthand experience with this particular drug and the damage it can cause in people's lives, I was deeply saddened by this changing perception by our youth. As a father of three young children, I was also concerned for the future of our state and for young people across the nation who are being told things that according to the entire scientific and medical community are simply not true.
During the “No on 64” campaign I had the pleasure of meeting a man who would educate me not only on the political process but also on marijuana and its implications inside public health, a man who would become a mentor and very good friend: Kevin Sabet, PhD. Following passage of A64 I stayed in touch with Kevin and was thrilled when he called me to go over his idea for an organization that would put science first and would work to educate the nation in ways we were unable to during the Colorado campaign because of our lack of funding. When Kevin and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy formed Project SAM: Smart Approaches to Marijuana, I was deeply honored to contribute to their mission of education as a member of the Board of Directors.
Because of my work on the campaign in Colorado I understood that while not unified, the vast majority of the treatment community saw the law in the state as foolish and shortsighted. Contrary to the accusations made by the legalization crowd, we had no interest whatsoever in seeing another harmful substance become mainstream, because we know what that will do from an addiction standpoint.