Patrick Kennedy saying something while using his hands to make a point at a Senate hearing in November 2013. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
“This is just the beginning,” former congressman Patrick Kennedy said, voice heavy with concern and nasally New England vowels. “Is this the kind of country we want?”
Kennedy was pointing to a picture of a jar of Nugtella, a weed-laced hazelnut spread that High Times has described as “mind-bending happiness.”
“Yes,” I thought, imagining Nugtella on waffles. “Sweet Jesus, yes.”
The majority of the rest of the audience probably did not agree with my vision of America.
In a congressional briefing Thursday sponsored by the Friends of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Kennedy and a pair of scientists briefed a standing-room crowd on recent social trends in Colorado, where citizens voted to legalize weed.
“My biggest worry is commercialization,” Kennedy said as he flipped through slides on his Powerpoint presentation that showed pot advertisements in Denver newspapers for such pot strains “grape ape.” “It’s all about the marketing. Who are they ultimately going to be after? Kids.”
Kennedy’s question, of whether this is the country we want, echoed comments by other politicians this year as support for legalization has continued to grow.
"If there's advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?" Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown said on Meet the Press in January. "The world's pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together."
“See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there’s head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high,” Republican New Jersey Gov. Christie said on a local radio show in April. “To me, it’s just not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey, and there’s no tax revenue that’s worth that.”
Decline and decadence—is the USA that appeared in Mitt Romney campaign ads possible if we’re all smoking trees?
Since leaving Congress, Kennedy co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). The group bills itself as “a coalition of professionals working for balanced, sensible policies that aim to reduce marijuana use.”
Kennedy was joined by William Compton, the deputy director of NIDA, and Robert Booth, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado.
Rep. John Fleming (R., La.) introduced the event. Fleming, who is also a doctor, is one of the more vocal opponents of legalization in the House. “My concern today is, are we making bad laws to, in fact, respond to mythology?” Fleming told the crowd. “We're assuming things that really aren't true.”
Part of the main contention of SAM, NIDA, and legislators like Fleming is that the public debate over weed legalization is light on science. The presenters alluded often to “the facts,” clinging to the phrase like a talisman.
Fleming used his time to highlight seven “marijuana myths,” such as the idea that weed in non-addictive or medicinal.
“Folks, I’m a physician,” Fleming said. “I can tell you with the possible exception of people who have terminal illnesses and who might be in extreme pain, there is no medicinal value to marijuana. I looked at the data. I’ve talked to the organizations.”
Fleming went on to try and dispel other “myths” such as “this whole notion of prisons filled with marijuana users who’ve broken no other law.”
“I talk to law enforcement all the time, and they reassure me that there are people who are marijuana users who, that may be part of their arrest records, but they’re behind bars for other reasons.”
What is apparent listening to speakers like Kennedy and Fleming is that the recent trends in public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have put them on their heels.
And at this point, the majority of the American public does not believe smoking a joint will lead you to become a heroin addict, shoot your friend in the face, or provide material support to al Qaeda. You might end up listening to Miles Davis with some beatniks, but you probably won't murder your new friends in a fit of reefer madness.
The choom gang suddenly has lobbyists, two states worth of territory, and a former member at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Facing these problems, Kennedy, Christie, Jerry Brown, et al, have taken a more society-wide tack in their arguments.
For example, Compton cited two New Zealand studies that showed long-term marijuana users had lower IQs over time and worse social outcomes than their peers.
After Compton, professor Robert Booth shared the results of a long-term, longitudinal study on registered medical marijuana users in Colorado, conducted before full legalization went into effect.
Compton and Booth’s presentations were heavy on data points, more measured in tone, and as a result much more effective than Fleming’s and Kennedy’s.
“I have no financial interests or conflicts,” Booth began. “However, in the spirit of transparency, I will tell you I went to the University of California at Berkeley in the 60s.”
Among Booth’s more interesting data points: 86 percent of registered users in Colorado reported driving while high, and 95 percent reported having sex while high.
Meanwhile, Booth said alcohol and cigarette use has been trending down among 12th graders nationally over the past decade, but marijuana use began trending up around 2006. In Colorado, those numbers are above the national average, and suspensions and expulsions at high schools for drugs are at an all-time high.
These are issues that will no doubt have to be grappled with, but Kennedy and crew have to make their argument in the face of a drug war that costs an estimated $13.7 billion a year, and where drug offenders make up half of the federal prison population.
Kennedy doesn’t deny the gross problems with the current criminal justice system, and it’s hard to disagree with him when he says things like, “We must interrupt the cycle of addiction before people end up in the criminal justice system.”
However, Kennedy said problems like racial disparity and draconian sentencing guidelines are not directly related to weed prohibition.
“We need to address criminal justice and sentencing reform, but a lot of people have used that as an excuse to push legalization,” Kennedy said. “That’s conflating two separate issues.”
Sitting in the audience for the briefing was Howard “Cowboy” Wooldridge, a retired police detective and the co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Dressed in a cowboy hat and a big belt buckle, Wooldridge shook his head and muttered under his breath while Fleming and Kennedy spoke.
When the Q&A session began, Wooldridge rose from his seat. “What advantages do you see to prohibition?” Woolridge asked at the end of a long streak of declarative sentences about the ill effects of the drug war.
“If we’re using your approach, we should legalize heroin, crystal meth, and cocaine,” Kennedy replied.
“They’re less dangerous than alcohol,” Woolridge shot back.
The two circled around each other’s arguments for a minute or so before a cease-fire was reached. It’s an old argument most of us have heard hashed out dozens of times in college dorm rooms and high school debates. But in the halls of Congress, no one’s seen a dead horse that didn’t deserve a beating.
After the briefing, I talked to Wooldridge. He’s a familiar face in DC. As his business card declares, he’s the “police voice on Capitol Hill in opposition to drug prohibition.”
“I’m not denying marijuana is a serious drug,” Wooldridge said. “But cops are missing pedophiles and sex traffickers because we’re spending thousands of hours chasing a green plant.”
The thing that must chafe anti-pot groups is most people these days find the guy in the cowboy hat more convincing than a former congressman from America’s biggest political dynasty.
Follow CJ Ciaramella on Twitter.