Marijuana: Project SAM, anti-legalization group, launches Colorado chapter, Mason Tvert attacks

A national organization that opposes the legalization of marijuana and is advocating "smarter approaches" launched today in Denver -- and also announced that the group will soon open a chapter in Colorado, where voters in November passed Amendment 64. The advocates behind the group, called Project SAM, talked at length about the dangers of marijuana usage and legalization but had few details about what the group would be doing in Colorado.

As we reported earlier this morning, Patrick Kennedy came to Denver today to promote and officially launch a new national organization dedicated to finding alternatives to legalizing marijuana that incorporate the expertise of public health officials. Amendment 64 proponent Mason Tvert held a preemptive news conference criticizing the efforts an hour before the Kennedy event at the Denver Press Club this morning. More on that event below.

At the launch event, Kennedy, alongside Kevin Sabet -- a former drug-policy adviser for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations -- spoke to reporters about the need for a more public health-based conversation on legalization.

Though they chose Colorado as the launch site for the effort, the speakers in attendance were reluctant to specifically discuss what they would be advocating in the state, where it is now legal for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana and smoke it recreationally. (Eventually, adults will be able to buy pot, too, but not for at least a year -- and the details are being debated by a governor's task force, which will make recommendations to legislators).

Kennedy announced that Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, would be leading a Colorado chapter tied to the new national alliance, called Project SAM, which stands for "Smart Approaches to Marijuana."

Doyle was in attendance and said that he would be holding a press conference in a few weeks to discuss details of his group, which will be called Smart Colorado. (That was also the name of the anti-64 group, but officials at the presser tell us that it's not the same group, even if it might have similar members and the same name).

Continue for more details on Doyle's group and the response from Mason Tvert. "Legalization is not going to help public health," Doyle told us after the lengthy news conference ended. "The first stage is, let's talk about marijuana use.... Legalization is not the right answer."

When we asked if his group would explicitly be opposing legalization that is now law in Colorado or if he and supporters will be pushing for some kind of reversal, he said those questions would be formally addressed when the group has a more official launch in coming weeks.

Smart Colorado would be a partner to Project SAM, he explained.

Reporters during the news conference asked speakers for their take on Colorado, where debates about legalization are essentially over, given that the voters passed the measure.

At one point, Sabet said, "We're not talking about reversing things in Colorado," but noted that it remains to be seen how the federal government will act and if it will enforce the law that maintains pot is illegal.

More importantly, he and others emphasized, they are looking to slow down possible legalization efforts in other states and change the debate to include public health experts; they had two local professionals on hand to discuss the risks legalization poses, especially for youth.

"'Lock them up or let them use...' This is not where we want this debate to devolve to," Kennedy said. "We need a more enlightened, thorough and thoughtful discussion and policy debate."

Christian Thurstone, who is both the addiction expert on the governor's implementation task force effort and also a partner with Project SAM -- a conflict, which Tvert described as "troubling" -- gave a speech about the harms of marijuana for adolescents.

"We see teenagers who are rising sports stars and very bright people who are dropping out of life because they're addicted," he said.

Sabet said that he was concerned with the "300-miles-per-hour freight train to legalization" and that experts need to work to ensure that the marijuana industry doesn't repeat problems the tobacco and alcohol industries created, mainly related to targeting youth usage.

He said the group is also interested in addressing unfair criminalization of marijuana use and the disproportionate impacts that arrests can have on minorities. But legalization, he said, is not the best solution.

Paula Riggs, a professor with the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said that "Legalization further gives the impression of social sanctioning.... Use goes up and the availability to our kids goes up."

Some speakers lamented that the debate in Colorado around A64 did not include science -- and they argued that the media didn't help, either.

Tvert, of course, had a very different take -- arguing the research shows clearly that marijuana is a substantially safer alternative to alcohol. This kind of attack on legalization, he said, only further pushes people to a more harmful substance and demonizes adults who simply prefer pot.

Continue for details from the counter-press conference led by Mason Tvert. Tvert, a key proponent of Amendment 64 and now a spokesman with the Marijuana Policy Project, held his counter-press conference one hour before Kennedy arrived at the Denver Press Club.

Outside -- noting that he would not be allowed in, since he's not a credentialed member of the media -- Tvert told a gaggle of reporters that the goals of Project SAM are not based on fact and unnecessarily slam adult marijuana use, which is proven to be a safer choice to alcohol.

"When it comes to adults, marijuana users are no more in need of forced public health interventions and education than regular consumers of alcohol, Advil, Starbucks or McDonald's," he said, later adding, "When you compare the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol, the less rational, less healthy and potentially more dangerous decision is the choice to use alcohol."

He continued, "Clearly, this group does not respect the facts."

While Project SAM is branding itself as a national effort, Tvert said he is worried about the influence the initiative could have in Colorado.

"I'm certainly concerned that they'll meddle in this process," he said. "I certainly hope...[the group] does not violate or disrespect the will of the voters.... They chose to launch their national organization here."

In general, Tvert said he was worried about efforts that focus on unproductive treatment and criminalization.

"It's costly. It's not necessary and it sends a terrible message," he said, arguing that debates around marijuana cannot be boiled down to "prison or legalization."

He also rejects arguments that regardless of alcohol comparisons, there's no reason to legalize marijuana.

"Why do they want to steer them to a more harmful product?" he said. "The people of Colorado are clearly more evolved than Patrick Kennedy."

Tvert also slammed Kennedy for being part of a family that has profited from alcohol sales. (Kennedy, during his presser, said that the personal attacks were a sign of how unproductive the debate has become).

"It's hypocritical and it's bad policy," said Tvert.

Continue for the full news release announcing Project SAM. Here's the full release Project SAM sent out today:

New National Alliance, Project SAM: "Smart Approaches to Marijuana" Launches to Promote Balanced Marijuana Policies

Patrick Kennedy, Jr.; Journalist David Frum; Dr. Christian Thurstone; Harvard Researchers; Former Obama Drug Policy Advisor; and others announce a new national alliance to educate lawmakers and the public about the science of marijuana use for the development of responsible public policy.

Denver, CO -- January 10, 2013 -- A new national alliance, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) is launching today in Denver, Colorado to start a new national dialogue on marijuana policy based on public health. Chaired by former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, Jr., Project SAM is a bipartisan alliance of lawmakers, scientists, and other concerned citizens who want to move beyond simplistic dichotomies of "incarceration versus legalization" and instead focus on practical changes in marijuana policy that neither demonizes users nor legalize drugs. Former George W. Bush Speechwriter, Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum, Harvard Professor Sharon Levy, University of Kansas public health specialist Kimber Richter, and former Obama and Bush advisor Kevin Sabet will also serve on the board of SAM. SAM focuses on a "third way" approach to marijuana, and will be working with state partners to reach the local level. The first state partnership will be Smart Colorado, chaired by Bob Doyle.

"I have devoted my life to mental health awareness and the establishment of a modern health system that recognizes the importance of preventing and treating mental illness," remarked Patrick J. Kennedy, Jr. "I am extremely concerned about how America's current rush toward marijuana legalization, however, could increase our health problems by allowing a permissive environment for addiction."

Project SAM, funded through volunteers, will focus on four main goals:

(1) To inform public policy with the science of today's marijuana (2) To have an adult conversation about reducing the unintended consequences of current marijuana policies, such as lifelong stigma due to arrest (3) To prevent the establishment of "Big Marijuana" -- and a 21st-Century tobacco industry that would market marijuana to children. Those are the very likely results of legalization (4) To promote research of marijuana's medical properties and produce pharmacy-attainable medications

"A world of legal drugs will be a world in which the fates of the top one third of Americans and the lower two thirds will diverge even more than they already do. We have opened more and more roads to self-harm. Must we now open another?" remarked David Frum, former presidential speechwriter.

While Project SAM will work on getting information to lawmakers and the public about the perils of marijuana addiction and legalization, it will also focus on cost-effective solutions to marijuana use such as the expungement of records for those with arrests for small amounts of marijuana.

"To be against legalization is not to be anti-reform," remarked Kevin A. Sabet, former advisor to the Obama Administration. "Marijuana arrestees should be referred to brief health interventions or treatment, if appropriate, and given opportunities to find a way out of drugs as opposed to a way into the criminal justice system."

Project SAM will be particularly focused, however, on preventing a 21st-century tobacco industry focused on a new product line - marijuana.

"The tobacco industry is a worldwide public health disaster. We should learn from our mistakes, not repeat them with marijuana," remarked Kimber Richter, a renowned tobacco researcher at the University of Kansas.

SAM will also focus on the impact of marijuana on children. "As a physician for kids, I know marijuana legalization would be a disastrous public health policy for them," said Christian Thurstone, child and addictions psychiatrist and researcher, University of Colorado Denver. "The developing brain should be shielded from harm, not exposed to it."

Finally, there will be a push to increase research into the medicinal properties of marijuana that does not involve ingesting the whole drug, as per "medical" marijuana by state referenda. "Cannabis-based drugs dispensed by pharmacists and prescribed by doctors represent an exciting area of current research," remarked Kennedy. "But more can be done to incentivize researchers and the government to focus on this area. Our coalition looks forward to helping with that agenda."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Activist Rico Colibri on creating Amendment 64 Shadow Task Force"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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