Patrick Kennedy: Say no to marijuana legalization

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Patrick J. Kennedy, who is a former member of Congress from Rhode Island and an honorary adviser to SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The epidemic of drug addiction and overdoses gripping Vermont, and our country at large, cries out for reform. We must change the perception that jail is an effective treatment for the disease of drug addiction, and give mental health issues the attention and funding they deserve, an opinion I know many Vermonters share.

But the legalization and commercialization of another addictive drug — marijuana — is precisely the wrong way to address this critical problem. Legalization has nothing to do with whether we lock up pot users, and everything to do with making money. Marijuana industry lobbyists that are pushing legalization to the Vermont Legislature disingenuously conflate the two issues, claiming that the only way to stop imprisoning marijuana users is to legalize the drug. They also make sweeping claims about how commercialization will control the black market and make the drug “safer.”

But both claims are demonstrably false. First of all, we can stop jailing marijuana users without letting big business sell marijuana at corner stores. Vermont has already decriminalized marijuana use for adults, and will not arrest or jail you if you possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use. And our Congress is already debating broader criminal justice reforms that may reduce the burden of arrests and imprisonment for drug offenses, especially on minority and low-income communities.

Second, and more broadly, we know from other states’ experiences that the billion-dollar marijuana industry — the folks behind the legalization effort — is more interested in profits than our health and safety. Legalization means inviting a powerful lobby into Vermont that pushes hard against regulations. Pot lobbyists in Colorado defeated restrictions on pot ads aimed at children. They have opposed restrictions on marijuana potency. And they are fighting laws keeping pot shops away from schools, parks, and day care centers in Oregon. Vermont legislators may think they have cracked the code on how to implement legalization “safely,” but it will not be long until industry forces expose and exploit any openings they see for the sake of profits.

Now, I put the call out to the Vermont Legislature: Please learn from the experiences of other states, and heed the warning signs — marijuana legalization does not reduce the toll drug addiction takes on our communities.


In other words, commercial marijuana behaves just like another large American industry peddling addiction — Big Tobacco. It may surprise Vermonters to know that the large tobacco companies have been studying the marijuana business since the 1960s, seeing it as a natural extension of their product line. And like tobacco, the marijuana business can only profit when it creates and cultivates heavy users. Just 20 percent of pot users consume 80 percent of all marijuana. Those heavy users, many of whom are addicts, are the target market for the pot industry, not the casual smoker.

This profit motive is why legalization and commercialization has yielded more pot use, not less, among children and adults. After legalizing pot, Colorado took the dubious honor of having the highest past-month marijuana use rates in the country in both age groups. A host of related problems have accompanied this dubious honor, including a surge in marijuana poisonings — up 148 percent overall, and up a shocking 153 percent among children 0 to 5 years old — and a 32 percent spike in marijuana-related traffic fatalities. Even without legalization, Vermont already ranks No. 2 in past-month consumption. Commercialization will only push those numbers higher.

Moreover, legalization has not blunted Colorado’s black market. The state’s attorney general told the press last February that “The criminals are still selling on the black market. … We have plenty of cartel activity in Colorado. …” Colorado law enforcement officers have even indicated that black market activity may have increased, as people illegally export pot to other states.

Finally, like the tobacco companies, who once boasted that they targeted “the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid,” the marijuana industry has had an outsized impact on poor and minority communities in Colorado. A recent exposé showed that Denver’s pot business was highly skewed towards poor areas, with one neighborhood having one marijuana business for every 47 residents. A strategy of “profits before public health” is not the way to serve socioeconomic and racial justice.

Now, I put the call out to the Vermont Legislature: Please learn from the experiences of other states, and heed the warning signs — marijuana legalization does not reduce the toll drug addiction takes on our communities. It represents burning down the village in order to save it, by handing Vermont’s public health over to Wall Street and the marijuana lobby. Rather, I urge you to focus on solutions we know will work — sensible criminal justice reform and serious investments in drug prevention.

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  • Dave Silberman

    Rather ironic that Mr. Kennedy, who was actually arrested on drug-related charges, but who was able to use his considerable resources to avoid jail time, comes out of that experience saying that continued prohibition is OK, because it’s not about locking people up.

    Sure, if you are as wealthy and connected as Mr. Kennedy, chances are you won’t get thrown in jail. But for ordinary citizens, and particularly people of color and the poorer amongst us, the results are very, very different.

    • Neil Johnson

      His arguments are still valid and carry weight, it’s a voice of sanity in our clamor to be come rich by selling drugs.

      It is popular, and some think they are debating issues when they :attack the messenger; it’s usually used when you can’t refute the argument.

      • John Klar

        Did anyone consider that this whole thing is absurd, that it should never have been criminalized, and that Big Business has no business if we just let people grow it freely — like the equally innocuous tomato. Our state allows home brewing, but not home growing? This is both logically and constitutionally indefensible: alcohol kills more people than all other drugs combined — it is the real “gateway drug”. Good luck maintaining private prohibition of weed while you permit home brewing — I’d like to see the judge who could convolute logic to achieve such a result. We repealed prohibition of alcohol because it didn’t work — having the government capitalize on the $ won’t work either. We can’t keep heroin out of maximum security prisons, but this out-of-touch government still thinks it can keep pot plants out of the forests and swamps.

      • Dave Silberman

        Neil, the central point of Mr. Kennedy’s argument is that prohibition does not mean jail time. This is blatantly false, and there’s no other way to say it: his belief in that falsehood is rooted in Mr. Kennedy’s life of privilege. But since you invited a full takedown, here you go:

        Mr. Kennedy warns that lobbyists will defeat efforts in Vermont to ban advertising to children and keeping cannabis businesses away from schools and daycare centers. Both of these things are banned in the current Senate bill, and there isn’t a person in Montpelier asking for that to change.

        Mr. Kennedy says that Colorado has failed to end the black market, and so will Vermont. But in just 3 years of legal sales, Colorado has reduced the black market’s share of total cannabis sales from 100% to 40%, which is tremendous progress in such short time. Meanwhile, Colorado’s government has pointed to that state’s loose medical marijuana laws as being the main culprit for the remainder. Vermont’s medical laws are the strictest of any in the country, and do not permit the kind of commercial quantity grows that Colorado’s do. You can try to spin a 60% reduction as a failure, but nobody will buy it.

        Mr. Kennedy cites some alarming statistics about traffic deaths and ER visits, but doesn’t tell you the source. That’s because the source is the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area’s 3rd report, which is full of blatant lies. He says that traffic deaths were up 32%. That is false, as explained right here on VtDigger just two weeks ago ( He says that ER admissions related to marijuana were up 153%, but that’s almost entirely because hospitals were not tracking the data with any rigor — and in any event the handful of cases of accidental ingestion by children were related to edible products, which Vermont’s law bans entirely.

        No amount of misleading statistics and fear-mongering will change the fact that prohibition is a massive failure. Over 80,000 Vermonters use marijuana in any given month, and Mr. Kennedy and SAM would rather they go to a shady underground dealer, some of whom filter their profits (knowingly or not) to organized crime, to get it than to a regulated storefront that pays taxes to the state. Mr. Kennedy and SAM would rather continue the failed policies that have resulted in Vermont having one of the highest youth usage rates in the country, and where (according to our Department of Health) 75% of our high school seniors self-report that marijuana is “easy to get”.

        But the clear majority of Vermonters would rather take a different approach — one that addresses the public health concerns head-on, instead of sticking out heads in the sand and pretending that what’s failing is actually working.

        • Neil Johnson

          Notice they won’t legalize if for personal use only and call it a day. At least this would be a reasonable way to legalize it. Grow your own and be done with it.

          It’s really about money and monopolization, no legalizing marijuana. No body but the legalization crowd talking about prohibition times. There is a middle ground, but big money doesn’t want to discuss that.

          Oh, inhaling smoke isn’t good for your lungs, but believe what you want. Advise your kids and grand kids as you see fit.

    • Ron Jacobs

      Just because Mr. Kennedy couldn’t handle marijuana doesn’t mean the rest of us should be forced to use it illegally. After all, not all of us can afford good lawyers to keep us out of jail like he could.

  • Pete Novick

    In my view, there is a great deal of wisdom in Mr. Kennedy’s essay.

    Unfortunately, many Vermont state legislators are already addicted – not to marijuana mind you – but to what they accurately see as a new and lucrative tax revenue stream. Legalizing marijuana and structuring its sale and distribution though a few companies means legislators will be temporarily relieved of having to make tough trade-offs in budget negotiations.

    There are two nouns in the Vermont state motto: Freedom and Unity.

    There’s a reason for that.

    • Paul Richards

      “Unfortunately, many Vermont state legislators are already addicted”
      They have been addicted for a long, long time. They exhibit traits of a crack addict. They just can’t get enough of our money and for the life of them, they just can’t stop spending and spending and spending. They are being paid to support anything just as long as it gives at least some temporary relief to their supply problems. Just like a crack addict, they are blind to the consequences of their actions. They are not the ones who will be accountable when it all comes tumbling down. They will be long gone, having dodged the bullet.

  • Mike Ferzoco

    It’s ironic that someone who is plagued by compulsive behavior wants to ensure that others can’t enjoy something in moderation. Yep, shut the door behind you, Pat, because you know the horrors of addiction. Protect us from ourselves. Right.

  • Walter Carpenter

    “But for ordinary citizens, and particularly people of color and the poorer amongst us, the results are very, very different.”

    This is very true and it is one of the reasons why marijuana was made illegal in the 1930’s.

    • Right Walter…also one of the “reefer madness” fears was that marijuana cause white women want to have sex with black men.

  • Catherine Antley

    from Beau Kilmer, author of the Vermont Rand Report on Marijuana , at 21:22 minutes into his Banking-Finance testimony last week.

    “It’s the daily and the near daily users that account for about 80% of all your marijuana expenditures, so the

    for-profit companies can be expected to focus on CREATING AND MAINTAINING these heavy users.

    Dependence is good the bottom line of these companies…. With our commercial free speech doctrine, it makes it very hard to restrict advertising and marketing.”

    Targeting the youth market, the tobacco industry asserts, is essential to their profit, since youth are most easily made into addicts. Targeting the youth with marijuana will create many addicts (1 in 6 kids become addicted instead of 1 in 10 adults) but increased youth marijuana use will hurt Vermonters IQ, hurt educational out comes, hurt mental health, increase psychosis, increasing the cost burden on medicaid, education and hospitals .

    Experience in Colorado has shown that commercial free speech is not controlled very well when marijuana is legalized. Only where it is decriminalized, like it is in Vermont and Holland, and NOT legal , is youth advertising and zoning of pot shops controlled more effectively and economically. In our small towns and small state, in the face of armies of corporate paid marijuana industry lawyers, state and town officials, school administrators, parents, teachers and health care providers will be at a disadvantage as they try to limit advertising and targeting of Vermont youth by the well funded industry. The 200-360 billion dollars in tobacco settlement money is also not available to control marijuana use the way the settlement money was and is used to control youth tobacco use.

  • Fred Woogmaster

    Patrick Kennedy, in my view, is not a credible commentator. The ‘Kennedy’ name does not alter that fact.

    Mr. Kennedy’s view of all social issues is skewed by his personal disappointments.

    I do not question his integrity; I question his judgment. He is wrong on marijuana..

  • Yet another commentator pushing the cannabis prohibition who wants to see folks face legal sanctions for smoking a little pot in the privacy of their own lives, medicinal marijuana restricted to the most dire circumstances (something opiates and sleep aides don’t face), and industrial hemp incredibly, if possible at all, difficult to grow.

    The issues around a medicine that can be grown for pennies a pound and a crop that can be used for food and construction materials and clothing and more exist ONLY because of the law.

    The black market for marijuana exists because huge portions of our population have stated quite explicitly they want and demand access to the drug, and instead of being able to grow a couple plants at home (can be done for literally pennies a pound) are pushed into arrangements that flow money back to crime cartels and the huge banks that launder the cash.

    The personal problems that may (and much more often don’t) come with smoking pot come from the wild eyed rantings of such as Mr Kennedy and the laws he helps to perpetuate. Marijuana is not on par with opiates or addictive sleep medication, but because our public discussions insist on mixing pot in with heroin and Ambien we cannot have sensible discussions. A teenager caught smoking pot once MUST be treated as a serious drug addict. A young adult caught smoking pot can easily lose government supplied college benefits. An older adult can face a fine that may be a full days wages.

    But we must continue this charade so we can keep folks from smoking pot in the privacy of their own lives, drastically reduce access to a proven medicine, and keep a valuable commercial crop off the market. Oh, and out of those three – which one is the most widely engaged in activity?

    Nice job cannabis prohibition.

  • Don peterson

    Whatever the mans bio his point is excellent– legalization and commercialization of marijuana are two entirely different issues, with contradictory outcomes.

  • If a substance is decriminalized, where do you buy it but from a criminal?

  • Bill Olenick

    No disrespect intended Mr.Kennedy but this is a Vermont issue, under discussion, and not a Rhode Island issue. We Vermonters do not try to influence R.I. issues so please, ye R.I. men, meddle not in Vermont’s affairs…

    • Neil Johnson

      This is totally being pushed from those outside of Vermont and some big business people within the state to start their own drug cartel. Please. We in Vermont are president Obama’s lab rats. Remember our health care fiasco? It’s only going to get worse.

  • Jason Wells

    While Mr. Kennedy and I disagree on the addictiveness and supposed harm of pot his comments on the big marijuana corporations are spot on. Big Pot = Big Tobacco I feel so many Vermonters want pot to be legal so bad they are willing to overlook the quasi state/corporate monopoly that is being created here or they have not been paying attention to how much the bill has been rewritten. In fact I know of many many regular users who are shocked when I explain that homegrown has been removed and that such a small group will be allowed to cultivate. Not everyone has the time to read VTDigger and other sources. If the votes are not there to pass a good bill as Sen. Benning claims we should wait regroup and get it right the first time. And as Mr. Kennedy pointed out these groups have tons and tons of cash for lobbying efforts if this bill is passed we are stuck with it for a very long time.

  • At least he’s signing the letters himself instead of having Vermonters send in the same copy/paste SAM letters under their names…that and the shift in tactics show just how desperate this group is. There’s a reason they’re losing the argument in every state around the country…the message from SAM is always, “be afraid”, this time it’s from big business.

    Aren’t we yokels lucky to have Patrick Kennedy parachuting in to protect us from out of state influence? The same guy who is politically and professionally funded by Big Pharma and who has a direct financial interest in keeping prohibition? The group that doesn’t concern themselves with over prescription of opioids–to which Mr. Kennedy himself was/is also addicted–isn’t so concerned about that issue. There’s a great article in “The Nation” about SAM and Mr. Kennedy:

    Sad when it’s as simple as coming down to money for him and his national group. We can, have, and should continue to, have honest discussions with our neighbors who both agree and disagree, but take your fear-mongering to the next state headed towards common sense.

  • “But the legalization and commercialization of another addictive drug — marijuana — is precisely the wrong way to address this critical problem”

    Marijuana is not addictive for most people….just like some people that are addicted to alcohol and can’t handle it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have a drink!

  • This commentary is intellectually dishonest from beginning to end. What Kennedy doesn’t mention is that, when Vermont was considering passing its modest decriminalization law in 2013, he personally came to Montpelier to lobby against it. No thanks to him, Vermont has prevented thousands of people from getting criminal records as a result of that sensible reform, and police and courts are wasting much less time dealing with marijuana cases.

    It’s also ridiculous that Kennedy apparently can’t tell the difference between a non-profit organization that supports marijuana regulation and “marijuana industry lobbyists.” The Marijuana Policy Project (my employer) has been around since long before there was a legal marijuana industry, and even today people in the industry only contribute a very small percentage (less than 10%) of our budget. (Fortunately, there are still many philanthropic individuals who believe — correctly — that marijuana prohibition is a stupid, counterproductive policy, and their contributions enable us to continue working in support of reasonable marijuana policies in Vermont and across the United States.)

    Returning to the actual issue, it’s sad that this former Congressman apparently wants organized crime to continue benefiting from the failed prohibition of marijuana. According to the Rand Corp, Vermonters spend $175 million each year buying marijuana from illicit drug dealers. These dealers do not check IDs and may introduce Vermonters to heroin or other dangerous drugs. Why would Kennedy, or anybody, want to maintain this perverse policy that makes millionaires out of criminals and fails to protect public health and safety? Prohibition has been a disaster, and most Vermonters agree that it’s time to move forward with a reasonably regulated approach.

  • Paul O’Day

    “Legalization has nothing to do with whether we lock up pot users,”

    Legalization has NOTHING to do with whether we lock up pot users?

    “and everything to do with making money. ”

    How does Mr. Kennedy explain the fierce battle for non-commercial homegrow?

    “And our Congress is already debating broader criminal justice reforms that may reduce the burden of arrests and imprisonment for drug offenses, especially on minority and low-income communities.”

    Actions speak louder than words – and the actions are arrest and imprison.

    “marijuana legalization does not reduce the toll drug addiction takes on our communities”

    Studies show marijuana friendly states have 25% less opiate related deaths. There is a school of thought that says significantly reducing overdose deaths might count as reducing the toll drug addiction takes on our communities.

    ” It represents burning down the village in order to save it, by handing Vermont’s public health over to Wall Street and the marijuana lobby. ”

    Wall Street is not really involved in the industry and the lobby consists of non-profit advocacy groups.

    ” Rather, I urge you to focus on solutions we know will work — sensible criminal justice reform and serious investments in drug prevention.”

    Those things have completely failed in the past and they will completely fail in the future.

    The only solution is to legalize drugs – starting with marijuana in 2016!

    California, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Maine, and Massachusetts are doing it – Vermont can too!

  • Aaron R Lovett

    As I smoke an American Spirit NDS, I realize that William Melvin Hicks was correct about ‘the tobacco companies’ being the worst drug dealers of all. While it costs me my life, 10$US every 2 days, it costs my fellow humans as well @ perhaps a greater cost. That written, Many jobs could be created to help humans get healthier, navigate the complexity of our health care system & listen to one another. Peace, amour, soul.

  • Martine Victor

    Bravo!!! Thank you, Patrick Kennedy!
    As far as I’m concerned, anyone from anywhere is welcome to voice their opinion if they’re able to make as compelling and invincible a case against legalization as you have.
    And shame on those taking pot shots at you over your personal history – it takes courage to share your experience and speak the truth.