Former Congressman, drug expert for Obama speak out against Vermont marijuana decriminalization effort

Former congressman Patrick Kennedy. Photo by Andrew Stein

Former congressman Patrick Kennedy. Photo by Andrew Stein

Former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Kevin Sabet, President Obama’s previous senior advisor at the Office of National Drug Control and Policy, spoke out Thursday against marijuana deregulation efforts under consideration in the Vermont Legislature.

Kennedy is the son of former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and is a recovering oxycodone addict. He joined forces with Sabet earlier this year to form the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, which advocates for “a health-first approach to marijuana policy.”

The group opposes legalization of the substance and has also taken a stance against incarceration of marijuana users. SAM supports policies that prevent and decrease marijuana consumption that don’t stigmatize or leave marijuana users with permanent arrest records.

Kennedy and Sabet told lawmakers they are concerned about the Vermont Legislature’s push to decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.

“This legislation is misguided because it really sends the wrong message to folks and sends us down this path of legalization,” Sabet told VTDigger. “The money behind this lobbying is in favor of legalization, and that’s their end point even if it’s not the legislators’. It’s a slippery slope. Do we want to see people go to jail for small amounts of marijuana? No, and they’re not.”

Sabet told a small crowd at a “Prevention Day” event in the auditorium of the state’s Pavilion building that this issue is of particular concern given Vermont’s already serious drug use levels.

According to the federal government’s National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, Vermont had the highest per capita rates of illicit drug use in the country for individuals 12 and older over a monthly period between 2009 and 2011 . The same held true for annual marijuana use between 2010 and 2011. Even when marijuana consumption was removed from the equation, Vermont had the highest per capita rate of illicit drug use in the country between 2010 and 2011.

Sabet and Kennedy argue that marijuana isn’t as benign as some supporters say. The National Institutes of Health estimate 9 percent of marijuana users become dependent on the substance, and a National Academy of Sciences study  found that “persistent cannabis use was associated with neuropsychological decline broadly across domains of functioning, even after controlling for years of education.” The mental impairment was concentrated among adolescents, and more persistent use was associated with greater decline. Furthermore, adolescents who stopped using the substance did not enjoy a full recovery of brain function.

Sabet said hardworking adults who smoke in moderation regularly ask him “What’s the harm?”

“That’s not what this is about,” Sabet said. “This is about major industries getting involved in profiting off of other people’s addictions.”

Kennedy said the country should learn from how the alcohol and tobacco industries have tried to lure kids to become addicted to these legal and regulated substances.

“The bottom line is all we need to know is what we already know from alcohol and tobacco, and that is they target kids,” Kennedy said. “We shouldn’t be surprised when one day all the folks that are posing for medical (marijuana) end up being the commercial proprietors of a new legalized drug that is going to target kids.”

Sabet said the alcohol industry “lives and dies” by the mantra “enjoy responsibly.”

“The funny thing is if everybody ‘enjoyed responsibly,’ which is what the industry is instructing everybody to do, they wouldn’t make any money,” Sabet said. “The industry would be out of business … because they don’t make money off of people who enjoy responsibly.

“They need people … to enjoy irresponsibly,” he added. That’s what Sabet warns would happen if the marijuana industry gains legitimacy in Vermont and across the United States.

Andrew Stein

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