Colorado will make history Wednesday as the first American state allowing stores to sell marijuana for recreational use – eliciting fear and predictions of doom from anti-drug campaigners.
On a Tuesday conference call hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said Colorado and Washington state – where stores will open later in 2014 – are "canaries in the coal mine."
"There are a lot of 'unintended consequences'... that will make them ponder whether this was the right decision," Kennedy said, predicting more traffic accidents, increased school truancy, higher drop-out rates and a general decrease in public health.
Kevin Sabet, who co-founded SAM with Kennedy after advising the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations on drug policy, said "we see tomorrow as the dawn of big marijuana in Colorado. ... In Denver it seems like it's going to be going hogwild."
"We've gone through 80 years of defeat by an industry – big tobacco... [that] perpetuated this myth that smoking was safe, for a time smoking was medicine, and we're seeing it again with marijuana," he said.
Sabet predicts marijuana shops will attempt to create addicts to bolster their bottom line.
"The only way to make money is from addiction," he said, comparing future marijuana sales tactics to casinos luring in gamblers. "They have to produce addiction in order to increase their profits and in order to do that they need to start young."
Sabet said it's "unhealthy and unhelpful" to compare alcohol to marijuana – a frequent comparison made by supporters of legalization, who point out that violence and death associated with alcohol is vastly greater.
"Alcohol, unlike marijuana, has a very long, widespread history in terms of the vast majority of the populations of Western culture before the Old Testament," Sabet said. Because of that cultural legacy, he said, "we're stuck with alcohol whether we like it or not."
Kennedy, whose grandfather purportedly bootlegged alcohol during Prohibition in the 1920s, said "money corrupts" and the "power and money behind the alcohol industry" makes alcohol policy reform impossible.
But with the marijuana industry, he said, "if we can catch it early enough we can prevent some of the most egregious adverse impacts."
Liquor companies "promote alcohol use to young people, they've got flavored alcohol, the regulations are minimal, [they are] advertising hard liquor on cable," Kennedy said. "It illustrates the problem we're going to have with marijuana."
Sabet claimed the true goal of legalization backers – who reaped 55 percent of the vote in Colorado and 56 percent in Washington in November 2012 – is to legalize other drugs.
"On one side you have the heads of the major medical and scientific organizations in the world," Sabet said. "On the other side you have advocacy groups, most of whom's main intention is to legalize cocaine and heroin down the road."
Mason Tvert, co-director of Colorado's Amendment 64 legalization campaign and communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, disagrees.
"That's like saying Kevin Sabet's goal is to make alcohol and broccoli illegal – it's entirely unfounded," Tvert says. "The Marijuana Policy Project works exclusively on marijuana policy and we were the largest financial backer of Amendment 64."
Tvert disagrees with other claims made on the call.
"Marijuana has been around as long or longer than alcohol," he retorts to Sabet's explanation of why alcohol must remain legal. It's also "far less addictive than alcohol and some ways even caffeine," he says.
Opponents of legalization, Tvert says, "would prefer marijuana be sold in a dangerous underground market." With legalization, he says, law-breaking business owners can easily be located and busted.
"It's rather morbid that this group appears to be rooting for increased teen use to fortify their opposition to marijuana policy reform," he adds.
Correction (01/01/14): This article has been modified to correct a quote attributed to Dr. Paula Riggs.