Marijuana showdown: Mason Tvert to take on Patrick Kennedy prior to Project SAM launch

Project SAM, a national organization that opposes marijuana legalization, is scheduled to formally launch during a 10:30 a.m. press conference today at the Denver Press Club. The event is only open to accredited journalists, but Marijuana Policy Project spokesman and Amendment 64 proponent Mason Tvert is showing up an hour early anyhow, to level hypocrisy charges at Project SAM principal Patrick Kennedy, who'll be attending.

As we reported in this space yesterday, Project SAM (the acronym stands for "Smart Approach to Marijuana") brings together Kennedy, a former Congressman from Rhode Island, with notables such as Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum, Denver-based addiction specialist (and Amendment 64 task force member) Dr. Christian Thurstone and the University of Florida's Kevin Sabet, a former drug-policy adviser for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations who spoke to us at length about the organization.

According to Sabet, marijuana reformers like Tvert "live off the false dichotomy that the only choices for policy are prohibition and incarceration or legalization. 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."

Project SAM favors treatment for arrestees found with marijuana as opposed to incarceration, calling for such individuals to undergo what Sabet refers to as "public-health assessments" to determine if they have a substance-abuse problem. The group also wants to educate the public about what Sabet sees as the "potential pitfalls of legalization" in light of the "300-miles-per-hour freight train heading toward legalization right now." And while he agrees that legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco cause great societal harm, he believes "that horse is out of the barn" -- and he doesn't want marijuana to gallop freely as well.

To Tvert, Project SAM's interest in assessing marijuana users is intrusive and wrongheaded.

"If Patrick Kennedy and his cohorts were talking about education for teenagers caught with marijuana, we wouldn't be objecting," he says. "We might even work with them. But what they're proposing is forcing any person caught with marijuana to be subject to health screenings and be forced into marijuana education classes -- and clearly, this is not in line with the people of Colorado's take on marijuana, and increasingly the entire nation's attitude as well.

"This is just the next effort to keep marijuana illegal. The prohibitionists have learned that lying about marijuana being deadly or contributing to violent behavior has failed to capture the hearts and minds of people. So now they're resorting to making some good arguments in support of ending marijuana prohibition" -- like, for instance, lobbying against jail time and marijuana convictions stigmatizing people who apply for jobs or financial aid -- "in order to maintain it."

As for Kennedy, his participation in Project SAM is "incredibly hypocritical," Tvert believes. "This is an individual whose family in part made a fortune off the sale of alcohol. If he's truly concerned about public health and safety, he should be working to educate the public about the relative harms of alcohol compared to marijuana. But this group isn't intent on providing the whole picture. If Patrick Kennedy wants people to be educated about marijuana, he should start by educating himself."

Tvert also objects to Sabet's arguments equating the risks of marijuana and alcohol.

Continue for more of our interview with Mason Tvert about the Project SAM protest. "When he suggests that the use of marijuana by adults is in any way as dangerous as the use of alcohol, he's doing a disservice not just to society in general, but particularly to young people, who deserve to hear the facts about the relative harms of these substances," Tvert says.

He also takes issue with Sabet's horse-is-out-of-the-barn analogy.

"Under marijuana prohibition, there is no barn to escape from. It's running wild. What we need to do is to create a barn where we can control this product. And given that marijuana isn't remotely as harmful as alcohol according to every objective study on it, including government research, it's simply illogical to work to keep a safer alternative to alcohol illegal. But they recognize that the writing's on the wall, and they now need to come up with a new way of trying to pursue the goal they've been pursuing for years -- maintaining marijuana prohibition."

Likewise, Tvert scoffs at Sabet comparing legalization to a 300 miles-per-hour train. "We've been engaging in public debate over this issue in Colorado for eight years, and have debated it intensely in the two years leading up to November's election," when Amendment 64 was approved. "It's not as if overnight a law was created without anyone knowing about it. This was a campaign in which voters heard about the issue and had years to review it, and they decided that marijuana prohibition doesn't make sense and we needed a new approach.

"If this is going 300 miles per hour, I can't fathom what anything slower would be going. The governor has created a task force to develop recommendations about how to implement Amendment 64; the legislature will deliberate on what recommendations should be implemented; and the Department of Revenue will develop rules it will enforce. There's no other way to go about this type of policy change.

"I recognize that Kevin Sabet would like us to sit around for the next decade doing nothing to change marijuana laws. But he's on the wrong side of history. The rest of our society is evolving much more quickly on this issue than he is."

The press conference starring Tvert will take place outside the Denver Press Club at 9:30 a.m., an hour prior to the Project SAM launch at the same location.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Project SAM touts public-health approach to pot in fighting legalization."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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