DENVER — Not all Coloradans appreciated former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy harshing their buzz Wednesday with his anti-marijuana effort.
Mr. Kennedy received a mixed reception at the unveiling of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, known as Project SAM, which seeks to spread information about the medical and public-health drawbacks of legalizing marijuana.
“Project SAM was created because we were concerned about the mad rush to legalization in this country and the false dichotomy presented as policy,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Incarceration or legalization. Lock ‘em up or let ‘em use. This is not where we want this debate to devolve to. … We need a more enlightened, thorough and thoughtful discussion and policy debate.”
Immediately beforehand, Mason Tvert, Colorado’s best-known legalization advocate, held a news conference outside the Denver Press Club where he accused Mr. Kennedy of hypocrisy for lecturing the public on marijuana even though the Kennedy empire was built on liquor.
“Why is it that someone who is an heir to an alcohol fortune would want to keep an alternative to alcohol that’s less harmful illegal?” said Mr. Tvert, who ran the successful Amendment 64 campaign. “This is an effort to keep marijuana illegal when the public is overwhelmingly stating to recognize that it doesn’t work.”
He displayed a sign that purported to show the distinctions between “Marijuana Sold by Stores” and “Alcohol Sold by Patrick Kennedy’s Grandfather.”
Mr. Kennedy, who spoke frankly about his struggles with substance abuse during the press event, said the criticism “illustrates how much this debate has devolved.”
“Somehow this is now trying to become a personalized assault on me as a figurehead in this, when I readily said at the beginning I want you to listen to the public-health folks,” said Mr. Kennedy, who shared the stage with two Colorado doctors and a public-health advocate.
Mr. Kennedy’s message appeared to come about three months too late, given that Colorado and Washington voters approved ballot measures in November legalizing limited recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and over.
He explained that the election came as a wake-up call for him and others concerned about the lingering health effects and addictive properties of marijuana, especially among adolescents.
“Like everyone else, I woke up after Election Day and saw that this was moving so fast in states like Washington and Colorado, and it looked as though the domino effect is that it could move even quicker to other states, my own Rhode Island among those,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The effort is bipartisan: In addition to the Democrat Kennedy, Project SAM is led by David Frum, a Republican commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush
Kevin Sabet, former drug-policy adviser to the Obama and Bush administrations, said the Colorado and Washington measures passed in part because they had better funding a nd organization, as well as weak opposition.
At the same time, Mr. Sabet said there were no plans to over turn the two state measures. He noted that a repeal may not be necessary, given that the amendments conflict with federal drug law and that Justice Department has yet to announce whether it will allow the states to proceed with legalized marijuana use.
“I understand we’re in Colorado, but we do have a federal law,” Mr. Sabet said. “And so that is going to have to be discussed in terms of federal versus state, so we don’t know what the outcome is of that yet.”
Still, Mr. Kennedy may be running afoul of another prominent Democrat: President Obama, who said in a post-election television interview that the federal government has “bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting Coloradans for marijuana possession.
That’s where Project SAM comes in, Mr. Kennedy said. The president “needs to hear from us. He knows that you can’t lead without people behind you.”
“If he doesn’t see strong support out there for his position, it’s hard for us to expect him to carry our water, so to speak,” Mr. Kennedy said.
In the meantime, Project SAM’s state affiliate is planning to weigh in on the Colorado task force charged with devising a regulatory and legal framework for implementation of Amendment 64. Dr. Chris Thurstone, a member of the state marijuana task force, is also participating in Project SAM.
Mr. Tvert said such involvement wasn’t appropriate. “They’re trying to inject themselves into regulatory decisions being made here in Colorado,” he said.
Mr. Kennedy disagreed.
“What I want is to slow this train down and kind of begin a discussion before other states rush to judgment, which is what I think happened here,” he said.