Project SAM, an anti-marijuana-legalization group founded by former drug czar advisor Kevin Sabet in response to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.Former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy has taken a hard line stance against marijuana since leaving office in 2011. The one-time prescription pill addict is on a media tour in support of his new role as chair of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or
Kennedy has earned the ire of marijuana reformers by calling pot a "very dangerous drug" that's no different from hard drugs like heroin and meth. In the last month, Kennedy's group has called for intervention and rehab for marijuana users and the closure of all medical marijuana dispensaries and cannabis clubs. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Kennedy personally asked the Department of Justice to block recreational marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington.
In response, marijuana policy reformers have criticized Kennedy for pushing "mandatory marijuana-education programs," "working out his personal control issues in public," and grossly overstating the addictiveness and dangers of marijuana. Missing from their critiques is the fact that Kennedy has done a 180-degree policy reversal, practically overnight. Indeed, as a representative from Rhode Island, Kennedy was a vocal advocate for medical marijuana. He was also an ally to the gambling industry and a beneficiary of money from tobacco and alcohol companies, whose businesses he now assails. (I corresponded at length with Kennedy about his record in Congress. You can read our email exchange on page 2.)
Between 2003 and 2007, Kennedy voted for the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, a bipartisan piece of legislation that would've prohibited the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using its funds to "prevent...States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." Kennedy voted for the amendment every year it was introduced, in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.
Project SAM, however, opposes letting states determine their own medical marijuana laws, and is calling for "the end of 'cannabis clubs' and so-called 'dispensaries' that are fronts for marijuana stores and do not follow appropriate standards of medical care." The group also argues that smoked marijuana is not medicine, and that THC-derived pharmaceutical products should be available only to people receiving palliative and hospice care.
That last line directly contradicts something Kennedy said about medical marijuana in a 2009 video shot at a fundraising party. In the video, reporter Tommy Christopher (now of Mediaite) asks Kennedy, "If we're acknowledging the medical necessity of medical marijuana, and 80 percent of Americans favor legalized medical marijuana, why do we have a federal ban at all?"
"It really doesn't make a lot of sense whatsoever," Kennedy says, before relaying his plan to limit the Drug Enforcement Administration's ability to police medical marijuana.
"I am actually in favor of taking the Drug Enforcement Agency [sic] out of monitoring doctors and their prescription authority, which has really been a big problem. Health care can monitor health care, and they know what's best for the patient," Kennedy says in the video. "I don't believe that for medical marijuana, for cancer or palliative care, that we want the DEA overseeing doctors," he adds.
Watch the 2009 video below.
"Patrick Kennedy's de-evolution on marijuana reform is atypical," says Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell, who alerted me to Kennedy's voting record on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment. (Marijuana Majority supports treating pot like alcohol and other reforms.) "The only other politician I can think of who similarly devolved from being a marijuana reformer to doing the opposite of what voters want is Barack Obama, who before becoming president said that the drug war is an 'utter failure' and that we have to 'rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws,' and then went on to shutter more medical marijuana dispensaries than President Bush did."
But Kennedy's apparent policy U-turn doesn't end with medical marijuana. Project SAM argues that one of the most important reasons to stop marijuana legalization is that pot producers could end up becoming the next Big Tobacco. That is, legal marijuana producers would preumably market its products via seductive advertising campaigns.
"A commercial marijuana industry will act just as the tobacco industry acts. Big Tobacco may even take over a marijuana industry once it’s up and running," reads a Project SAM article that fingers "Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris" for purchasing, in 2009, "AltriaCannabis.com" and "AltriaMarijuana.com." What Project SAM doesn't tell you is that Altria gave money to Patrick Kennedy's congressional campaign, and that Philip Morris, New Century Tobacco Group, and U.S. Tobacco all did as well.
And what about alcohol? Project SAM warns that legalizing marijuana means we might see it used in as many crimes and car accidents as alcohol currently is. Kennedy, who routinely references his own battles with intoxicants and DUIs in public, has called alcohol use in the U.S. an "epidemic." Yet while in office, Kennedy received over a hundred campaign contributions from the alcohol industry, including Anheuser-Busch, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, the National Beer Wholesalers Association of America, and many other alcohol distributors, manufacturers, and retailers.
These associations are absolulely dwarfed, however, by Kennedy's relationship with the gambling and casino industries. During the course of his eight terms in the House, Kennedy received over $500,000 from gambling groups—including big Las Vegas casinos, tribal casinos, and the electronic gambling machine company GTech Corp. This relationship, which Kennedy freely admits to, is relevant to his work with SAM, as addiction researchers say that "the mere sight of a slot machine can trigger a chemical response in the gambling addict's brain in the same way the thought of cocaine stimulates a drug addict." As a congressman heavily supported by gaming interests, Kennedy advocated increasing access to legal gambling in his home state and elsewhere. Yet Kennedy now says his years-long support for addiction treatment suddenly conflicts with making it easier for people to engage in potentially addictive behavior.
Yesterday, I asked Project SAM to comment on the apparent dissonance between Kennedy's work in Congress and his role as an anti-pot crusader. A few hours later, I received a series of emails from Kennedy in which he defended his advocacy for the gambling industry, said his position on medical marijuana had "evolved over time," and suggested that the alcohol, gambling, and tobacco industries had donated to his campaign in order "to keep the door open to discuss their issues with me."
"There is no contradiction," Kennedy said in his first email. "I am for mitigating effects of chemotherapy and if MJ helps - then I'm for it (btw THC doesn't need to be smoked to achieve this)."
When I pointed out that he had once vigorously supported smoked medical marijuana, and the right of states to implement laws legalizing its sale, Kennedy replied, "As far as your general point that it doesn't look like my position on MJ has been consistent - you may have me because like many other issues, my political positions have evolved over time as I have learned more and then have the benefit of incorporating that new info into my political thinking as I have done in my position with SAM. "
On the specific question of why he supported the Hinchey bill, Kennedy wrote, "As a Rep there are usually many issues involved as I stated before that may not be apparent to the untrained eye. Bottom line is there is nothing nefarious as you insinuate in your questions."
On the question of gambling, Kennedy wrote, "My principal focus was Sovereignty for Native Americans to have same government revenue as the States they were in as provided under IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act]. As you may know - a Federally recognized Tribe in RI was the symbol for this when RI denied their rights to provide for their citizens even though the state had plenty of gambling revenue to support state education efforts but not the tribes."
I told Kennedy that I thought his argument for extending gambling rights to tribes made perfect sense. But I didn't understand why he was willing to expand legal access to a potentially addictive activity while in Congress but is opposed to doing so now. I also wanted to know why, if his advocacy was purely for Native Americans, did he receive tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from video poker machine company GTech Corp, which is not owned by Native Americans?
"G- tech...is originally a RI company," Kennedy wrote. "I was a RI rep in addition to being a leader on [Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act]. Is there a conflict between helping RI employer in gaming industry and being for better addiction treatment? Perhaps on one level but that level ignores the bigger picture."
While Kennedy didn't speak to more specific questions about donations from the alcohol and tobacco industries, he did write, "I took money from a lot of folks who knew my position of leadership on the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was uncompromising. Did they want to keep the door open to discuss their issues with me - perhaps."
Kennedy concluded our exchange with the following: "The debate should be about SAM not the circuitous route I took I arrive there. Real question is whether I'm heading in the right direction going forward or not. I am happy to have people debate me on this in fact I welcome it. This will make SAM a success whatever the ultimate policy becomes because at least we will be thinking before rushing forward with an answer that may not stand up under scrutiny."
Less than 20 minutes after Kennedy sent his second (and final) email, Project SAM co-founder Kevin Sabet wrote me and said, "Patrick and I just spoke as he was taking off and he said this to me in addition to the below, to answer your questions directly." The answers he then provided read very differently from what Kennedy had written.
For instance, one Kennedy quote Sabet provided--"In Congress I received money from many different industries and used that money to advocate for the most comprehensive system of mental health parity in our country's history. These industries caused the mess we are in. Would we not think BP should pay for the Gulf Oil spill?"—doesn't sound anything like the defense of the gambling industry Kennedy had offered moments before.
For the sake of fairness and transparency, you can read the entire email exchange between Reason, Kennedy, and Sabet (with email addresses redacted) below.
Read more Reason coverage of Project SAM.