The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, did several stints in rehab after crashing his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill in 2006, a headline-making event that revealed the then–US congressman for Rhode Island had been abusing prescription drugs, including the painkiller OxyContin. Kennedy went on to make mental health—including substance abuse—a cornerstone of his political agenda, and he is reportedly at work on a memoir about his struggles with addiction and mental illness. In 2013, he also helped found an advocacy group, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), which has barnstormed the country opposing the growing state and federal efforts to legalize pot.
Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country.
“Let me tell you, there is nothing more inconsistent with trying to improve mental health and reduce substance-abuse disorders in this country than to legalize a third drug,” Kennedy boomed. The former congressman also praised his fellow speakers for standing up to the “extremist responses” from legalization advocates.
Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.
Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts. (Notably, there are no known deaths related to marijuana, although there have been instances of impaired driving.)
People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.
So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.
A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants.
The anti-pot lobby’s efforts run counter to a nationwide tide of liberalization when it comes to marijuana law. In 2012, voters legalized pot in Colorado and Washington State; this year, voters in Alaska appear poised to do likewise. Since 1996, twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana or effectively decriminalized it, and a contentious ballot initiative in Florida may result in the South’s first medical marijuana law. Meanwhile, legislatures across the country are debating a variety of bills that would continue to ease marijuana restrictions or penalties. On the federal level, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has challenged the Drug Enforcement Administration in testy hearings, and many have called for removing marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, which puts it in the same class as heroin and LSD.
The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate.
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