The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal
Patrick Kennedy’s Project Sam is arguably the most visible group opposing marijuana-law reform, with the former congressman making the rounds on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher and Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, among other cable and news programs. And yet this group, too, is rife with potential conflicts of interest.
Some legalization advocates have criticized Kennedy’s crusade against pot. Though the former congressman received many second chances in his struggle with alcohol and prescription drugs, he has opposed any move toward marijuana decriminalization that would afford similar leniency to others. After Project SAM began organizing opposition to Alaska’s legalization initiative this year, demonstrators in Anchorage paraded a giant check with the figure $9,015—the amount in campaign money that Kennedy received from the liquor and beer lobby while in office. Critics have also pointed out that Project SAM’s board and partners represent many of the interest groups that stand to profit from marijuana’s continued prohibition.
“Some of the folks active with Project SAM appear to have a financial interest in keeping marijuana illegal and promoting mandatory treatment for adult consumers,” says Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Colorado. For example, Ben Cort, Project SAM’s spokesman, leads a drug-treatment program in Aurora, Colorado.
Tvert points out that marijuana convictions often result in court-ordered rehab, which can provide an obvious incentive for treatment centers to oppose reform. In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Geo Group—a company that manages several for-profit treatment and detention centers—states that “any changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” In short, marijuana-law reform can cut into revenues.
Dr. Stuart Gitlow, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, sits on Project SAM’s board of directors and frequently speaks out against medical marijuana. In comments to USA Today in January, Gitlow disputed President Obama’s comment that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. “There’s no benefit to marijuana,” he said. “It’s simply that people want the freedom to be stoned. That’s all it is. And there’s a great deal of risk.”
What the USA Today piece didn’t mention—and what Gitlow hasn’t disclosed during his appearances on HLN TV, Southern California Public Radio and other local media—is that he serves as the medical director for Orexo, a pharmaceutical company that recently produced a new drug called Zubsolv. The product is an opioid substitute along the lines of Suboxone that, while designed to treat opioid addiction, is often abused for recreational purposes. As The New York Times reported, Suboxone has been linked to more than 400 deaths in the United States since 2003.
Last December, Dr. Mark Willenbring, former director of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, raised concerns about Gitlow’s leadership of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, given his relationship with Orexo. “My concern is with the increasing public perception, especially in psychiatry and addiction treatment, that financial interests taint and discredit professional opinions,” Willenbring told the Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly.
Peter Bensinger, a former DEA administrator, and Robert DuPont, a former White House drug czar, now manage a consulting firm that specializes in workplace drug testing. The two work closely with Project SAM and have spoken at events with its leaders. Last year, for example, Bensinger and DuPont signed on to a Project SAM letter pressing the Justice Department to reconsider its decision to defer the enforcement of federal drug laws in states that have legalized marijuana. For that stance, they’ve come under fire from marijuana-law reformers like Howard Wooldridge of Citizens Opposing Prohibition for promoting “policies that line their pocketbook.”
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