International Cannabis Business Conference

Son of SAM: Patrick Kennedy's Anti-Marijuana Crusade

Patrick & Ted Kennedy
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, with his father Ted.

Elected to Congress as a Representative from Rhode Island in 1994, Patrick Kennedy served eight terms, finally retiring at the end of 2010. Now, the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former addict has founded an anti-marijuana group with support from notorious prohibitionist Kevin Sabet and rightwing pundit David Frum. Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, hopes to slow the momentum of reform by promoting the status quo, rebranding it as decriminalization with treatment ("neither legalization nor incarceration").

“I am not the best messenger on this, but I am a concerned citizen," Kennedy says. "I can’t stand by and let this move forward without any kind of debate or questioning. This thing could pass right underneath the radar and we will wake up one day and say what were we thinking? I have had a lot of moments like that in my life.”

More specifically, Kennedy contends that "marijuana destroys the brain and expedites psychosis. It’s just overall a very dangerous drug."

While in office, Kennedy was an outspoken advocate for mental health care, research and treatment parity. (He still works for the mentally ill and to advance brain science, having created the neuroscience foundation, One Mind for Research.) He was also outspoken as an advocate for gun control - not surprising since, as a Kennedy, it's practically expected.

Kennedy wasn't big on drug policy. His experience with substance abuse and addiction is personal. He entered treatment in 2006 after a widely-publicized car crash in DC. Kennedy denied that he'd been drinking, though a hostess at the Capitol Hill bar Hawk & Dove had seen him imbibing there earlier that night. It was also reported that he was on Phenergan and Ambien at the time.

During his 2006 treatment stint at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Kennedy acknowledged that for years he'd been abusing alcohol and prescription drugs, and that he suffered from depression. It was not his first time in treatment. According to his biography by the National Journal bio Kennedy initially went into rehab in 1986 when he was 19 years old. He re-entered treatment in June 2009. At the time his father was in ill health, suffering from the brain tumor. Sen. Kennedy finally passed away in August 2009. Largely due to that loss, Patrick Kennedy announced in 2010 that he would not seek re-election.

Two years later, Kennedy has returned to public life, dredging up Reefer Madness-style arguments in overstating the health risks from marijuana use. Kennedy's new cause is a family affair. His cousin Christopher Kennedy Lawford (the son of actor Peter Lawford) has been a recovering addict for a long time. In addition to being an author, Lawford is founder and CEO of the nonprofit Global Recovery Initiative. He's also s a Senior Fellow with Kevin Sabet's Institute on Drug Policy. Kennedy wrote the introduction of Lawford's latest book is Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction; the two of them are touring together to promote it.

"I'm in the longest period of sobriety I have had in my life," Kennedy claims, "because I hang around with someone with real long-term sobriety, my cousin Chris, I have a better chance. The key to recovery is how to live life in a new way so that you do not pick up again.”

A more cynical take on their partnership suggests that Lawford and his PR people were concerned that the book needed additional star power to generate sales, and so they took advantage of the news around legalization measures winning in Colorado and Washington, and drafted cousin Patrick to serve as an anti-legalization shill.

Maybe when Kennedy has his own personal demons under control he'll be ready to reclaim his family's political legacy. Until then, legalizers have to deal with one more high-profile recovering addict who's working out his personal control issues in public.

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Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugWarFacts.org.