DETROIT - New Year's Day is a shining moment for those who've shouted Free the Weed in Colorado. And many in Michigan are voicing similarly upbeat sentiments about broadening the access to recreational as well as medical marijuana.
Colorado kicks off legal sales of recreational marijuana Wednesday at state-licensed stores. Meanwhile, three cannabis bills are awaiting action in the Michigan Legislature.
But a bevy of prominent drug-abuse specialists from across the country, including several in Colorado, countered Tuesday with a call for marijuana to remain illegal.
Patrick Kennedy, the son of Robert Kennedy and a former U.S. representative from Rhode Island, said Americans are rushing recklessly toward legalizing a dangerous substance.
"This is a battle that, if we catch it early, we can prevent a lot of the abuse," Kennedy said.
Speaking for a nonprofit group he cofounded called SAM, or Smart Alternatives to Marijuana, Kennedy was part of a nationwide conference call on the issue of legalizing marijuana Tuesday that included the Detroit Free Press. Kennedy, known for championing wider access to mental health care, but also for his history of abusing pain relievers, said Americans' response to the push for legal cannabis should be to expand drug abuse treatment under the Affordable Care Act.
The nation should create school-based drug abuse programs, "so that kids don't have to drop out to get treatment," said Dr. Christian Thurstone, medical director of a drug abuse clinic in Denver.
In the Denver area, so many more children need treatment for marijuana addictions that "to keep up with the demand, we recently doubled the number of staff in our treatment center," Thurstone said during the conference call.
Yet, by educating the public about marijuana's dangers, the abuse specialists with SAM said they not only hope to stop the legalization trend, they want to persuade Colorado voters to repeal their decision to make recreational marijuana legal.
"It's sort of like the groups with gay marriage (saying), 'This is inevitable.' We don't think it's inevitable" that the U.S. will legalize marijuana, said Kevin Sabet, cofounder with Kennedy of SAM and a former deputy drug czar with the Obama administration. In January 2013, Rolling Stone magazine called Sabet "Legalization Enemy No. 1."
Firing back, those who favor legalization — including some who listened in on Tuesday's conference call — said SAM's drug abuse specialists are part of the war on drugs, helping to perpetuate an industry of law enforcement and drug treatment that feeds on keeping marijuana illegal.
"This war on drugs, and on marijuana, has been a gold mine for law enforcement as well as the drug-treatment industry," said Tim Beck, 62, of Detroit, a retired health-insurance executive who helped organize ballot proposals to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in numerous Michigan cities.
"And for some of these people, it's very difficult to have your fundamental core belief proven to be wrong," Beck said. As a cofounder of Safer Michigan Coalition, a statewide group that favors legalization, Beck said he spent part of New Year's Eve sending congratulatory emails to dozens of Michiganders "who helped advance our Michigan cannabis reform agenda," he said.
A chief claim of the SAM group — that legalization of medical marijuana by various states, including Michigan, has led to wider use by youths — can be refuted by viewing statistics from the federal government's own U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
According to the federal statistics, in 2009-11, at a time when teen marijuana use increased nationally, the percentage of teens using marijuana in Colorado dropped 11.6%.
"And guess which state saw the second-biggest decrease at 10.1%? Michigan, where, I don't have to tell you, the environment around marijuana was also changing rapidly," Riffle said Tuesday.
On New Year's Day, at least 20 stores in Colorado selling both recreational and medical marijuana are expected to open, "and I think the number will be in the hundreds in six months," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C.
To purchase the drug, buyers must be 21 or older, and tight limits are placed on nonresidents, said O'Keefe, speaking Tuesday from Grosse Pointe Farms, where she was visiting her parents. "Colorado residents can possess up to 1 ounce or grow as many as six plants at a time," she said.
In contrast with the SAM group, a top national official of the American Civil Liberties Union championed the change coming to Colorado as "common sense" and a way for the state to save millions of dollars a year by no longer jailing cannabis users.
"We believe this marks the beginning of the end of the nation's decades-long war on marijuana and its harmful human and fiscal toll," said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project.