The Real Skinny on SAM: A Response to Maia Szalavitz

FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, a medical marijuana plant grows at the Northwest Patient Resource Center m
FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, a medical marijuana plant grows at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, in Seattle. Votes this week by Colorado and Washington to allow adult marijuana possession have prompted what could be a turning point in the nation's conflicted and confusing war on drugs. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Columnist Maia Szalavitz devoted 1000 words on last week to single-handedly bash a project she clearly does not know much about. After falsely characterizing that Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) favored criminalization of marijuana users, she wondered, "I can't really get my head around why people who have suffered addiction would support criminalization -- especially people like Kennedy," referring to Patrick Kennedy, Project SAM's co-founder and Board Chair.

As a less glamorous member of SAM's Board, but as someone also in recovery for more than fifteen years, I too joined the board of SAM. But Ms. Szalavitz and others should hardly be surprised: We know that if marijuana is legalized in America, we could have mass commercialization and normalization of the drug, resulting in increased initiation of use, and, you guessed it, more relapse.

Ms. Szalavitz also missed the entire point of Project SAM (at best; at worse it was a purposeful mischaracterization simply because she disagrees with SAM's objectives and has said some nasty things about its other Board members in the past). SAM is not in favor of making criminals out of people who smoke marijuana; nor is it in favor of stigmatizing them for past use.

Yes, we're here to make a statement: Drug policy is nuanced. It's complicated. And while one might be against legalization -- like we at SAM are -- that does not mean we want to see users rot in prison.

One of the main reasons that I joined the SAM board and am working with this newly formed crew is because I love that they are not trying to oversimplify a complicated discussion. Drug policy, including the age old question; to legalize or not, is a multifaceted issue that demands serious and thoughtful attention. Unfortunately the debate has degenerated to the point that if you can't get out your slogan in a sentence or two -- usually "legalize" or "lock em' up" -- nobody listens. It has come down to who yells the loudest and who has the money to get that yelling out to the most people. It has boiled down to tag lines, jingles and billboards. I appreciate that Rep. Kennedy and the rest of the SAM contributors recognize that a more involved and serious approach is needed.

As someone who has spent years working with addicts and alcoholics and who has put together a couple of 24's myself (sober 6/15/96), I am tired of seeing industry, special interests and others with ulterior motives frame the discussion. We need a serious conversation that asks the hard questions;

What role if any does incarceration play in drug policy?

  • Can we protect kids from the harms that early use and normalization will bring?

  • What is the economic cost of legalization?

  • How benign is weed today?

  • How do we best provide treatment to those who need it?

  • What do we need to do to keep stoned people from driving?

  • Obviously there are plenty of other questions to examine, none of which have a simple answer that can fit on a bumper sticker.

    Sometimes I wonder if people are just looking for a way to justify attacking before thinking (I'm pretty sure the big book mentions something about contempt prior to investigation). Part of the problem is that we do not fit neatly into any "camp." The old school likes to paint us as being soft on drugs and compromising to appease public opinion; while the pro-legalization crowd keeps up with that tired-ass "reefer madness" tag that they have put on everyone who dared to disagree with anything they say for years.

    Time to get it straight, on the record and out there for everyone to see: WE ARE NEITHER. We are here to demand that the debate move into the adult world. We are tired of simplistic and knee-jerk reactions to complicated issues and want to have the conversations, for real this time.

    We want to see real science lead the way as we look to evidence-based solutions to help guide public policy. When I say "real science," I mean actual studies done by third parties, not industry lap-dogs or those with clear agendas. We need to demand that every study we consider be peer reviewed (Why, oh why, Ms. Szalavitz, do you cite a working paper that made a spurious connection between drunk driving rates and medical marijuana and then leaped wildly to the conclusion that medical marijuana significantly contributes to drops in drunk driving?). To simplify it a bit for the rest of you who like me don't have a bunch of letters after our names, a peer reviewed study is science a non-peer reviewed study is opinion. Let's start citing sources and not just throwing stats at each other like a junior high school food fight.

    Unfortunately, Ms. Szalvitz cherry-picked many of the studies she cited as "proof" that somehow marijuana was pretty harmless. It reminded me of the way much of society characterized tobacco in the 1950s: everyone is doing it, how can it be that bad, and, of course, it is medicine to smoke a cigarette. The science is clear on marijuana's effects: today's marijuana is five times stronger than it was in the past, and early use can hurt adolescent brain development. This, in turn, leads to addiction for 1 out of every 6 kids who try the drug, and persistent use is tied with IQ declines, memory loss, learning problems, mental illness, and impaired driving. This is not Reefer Madness à la the 1920s. This is the state of the science a la 2012.

    I understand how some might acknowledge the harms of marijuana but still side with a limited form of legalization: After all, today's policies are costly, and some people, especially those who use marijuana in public or while on probation or parole, may suffer consequences worse from the justice system than the use of the drug itself. Indeed, we need to consider both sides of the argument at hand and have an honest discussion of the costs and benefits of any policy. We need to admit that many people do smoke weed with limited consequences while at the same time agreeing that it is ridiculous to say that everyone can smoke with impunity. I am just as tired of seeing weed blamed for every issue under the sun as I am being told that it is totally harmless and that legalization couldn't possible have any adverse effects. Or that it is the cure for cancer, state budget deficits, and violent crime rates. Project SAM, in its four pillars, tackles these nuanced issues in a thoughtful way with its four main objectives:

    (1) To inform public policy with the science of today's marijuana.

    (2) To reduce the unintended consequences of current marijuana policies, such as lifelong stigma due to arrest.

    (3) To prevent the establishment of "Big Marijuana" -- and a 21st century tobacco industry that would market marijuana to children. Those are the very likely results of legalization.

    (4) To promote research on marijuana in order to obtain FDA-approved, pharmacy-dispensed, cannabis-based medications. Before those medicines are approved, we should open a compassionate access program that allows seriously ill individuals, under their physician's care, receive non-smoked extracts of marijuana for a specific condition, at cost through the FDA.

    Rather than trying to refute all of the misinformation that has been represented about SAM I ask that people take a look at what we are for yourselves. No more tag lines and mindless straw-man arguments. We are smarter than that, we want real change and real conversation. Let's demand that this conversation get serious, because, as many of us who have been there know too well, the stakes are pretty high on this one.