Marijuana: Project SAM touts public-health approach to pot in fighting legalization

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This last assertion is made by Amendment 64 proponent and Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert in a press release and petition aimed at Project SAM member and former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy; both are on view below. But the University of Florida's Kevin Sabet, a former drug-abuse consultant for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and a SAM principal, rejects these claims.

Reformers like Tvert "live off the false dichotomy that the only choices for policy are prohibition and incarceration or legalization," Sabet says. "But because we don't fit neatly in either basket, we're trying to have a rational conversation about marijuana in this country led by public health in a bipartisan way that learns from mistakes we made with alcohol and tobacco and also corrects the mistakes our current policy has."

Kennedy and Sabet, along with Dr. Christian Thurstone, a Denver-based addiction specialist and controversial member of the Marijuana archive: "Amendment 64 task force, are expected to be present at Project SAM's official debut event, slated for 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, January 10, at the Denver Press Club. (The gathering is limited to accredited media members.) And they're not the only high-profile figures on the SAM bandwagon. Also pitching in is Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum and Kimber Richter, a tobacco researcher with the University of Kansas.

What was the genesis for Project SAM?

"After the vote in Colorado and Washington, I got a call from Patrick Kennedy," Sabet replies. "He called me and said, 'I'm really concerned about how these laws are going to increase the permissiveness of marijuana in society,' especially for people in recovery, like himself, and the fact that this could lead to more problems."

As you'll recall, Kennedy, son of the late senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, didn't seek re-election to Congress in 2010. He has acknowledged past struggles with alcohol and substances such as Oxycontin.

"We knew there were smarter approaches," Sabet goes on -- so he and Kennedy gathered together likeminded folks who agreed to take part in Project SAM. Together, they settled on four major areas of focus.

"First, we want to make sure that the evidence of public-health harms of marijuana is much more widely understood," Sabet says. "It's ironic that legalization has been in ascendance for the past fifteen years, and during that period, we've learned so much more about the negative harms of marijuana.

"Our second focus is to make sure we have a balanced policy. For example, we want to make sure people arrested for marijuana aren't stigmatized by that arrest. We don't want them to lose jobs in the future and have to go back into the illicit economy -- which is why we don't want the criminal justice system to be our knee-jerk response. We want public health to be that knee-jerk response."

How this public-health approach translates is open to dispute.

Continue to read more of our interview with Project SAM's Kevin Sabet.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts