02/27/2014 10:42 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Incarceration as Motivator: Response to Project SAM

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or Project SAM, is a campaign headed by Patrick Kennedy and Kevin Sabet to keep marijuana illegal and address the failings of the drug war through other means. Their sound bite is reassuring to parents and to those that wish to keep marijuana illegal and away from children, but words such as incarceration, mandatory screenings and probation are scare tactics from the past that they have re-packaged to address our ongoing substance disorder health crisis.

Kennedy, Sabet and their cohorts are wrong -- the criminal justice system is no way to deal with substance disorder. In fact, he has turned his back on his own belief that addiction is a disease and could be solved by expanding medical care to cover mental health and substance disorder. He has turned his back and embraced the "sick but bad" model of dealing with the behavior aspects of substance disorder. Instead of lobbying for money to research all schedule one drugs so that we understand the true potential or harm, he is looking to use the threat of incarceration and expansion of drug treatment courts to deal with a disorder that we know very little about.

We can all agree that excess tobacco, alcohol and drugs are not healthy for the body, especially for developing children, but where we all disagree is the degree to which using these substances become unhealthy and whether using these substances is a criminal offense. Kevin Sabet's sarcastic response that, "Madison Ave. has proven to get around more rules and be more ruthless than any Mexican drug cartel," in pushing a product is an example of the force in which he and Kennedy will market their cause. They have the money and the backing to wage a full front public health effort concerning marijuana. This may have parents sighing in relief until you read the fine print, the fine print: within the legal system, the fine print: repeated use, the fine print: incarceration.

"Incarceration is a powerful motivator," Kennedy states. Yet forced incarceration does not bear out in research. Forcing the courts to set sentences for noncompliance, drug testing, searches, seizing of property and the further break up of families all in the name of Project SAM is damaging to the individuals that he is looking to help. Forcing medical treatment on individuals has not proven effective and the threat of incarceration has not proven to deter drug use. Kennedy is as frustrated with the marijuana issue as every other parent. He has a history of substance disorder in his family, and he is afraid. We all are afraid -- afraid that we have not tackled the substance disorder issue within our country and our children may be the next to be affected.

Kennedy argues that researches simply do not know enough about marijuana. This is true, but neither do policy makers know that incarceration or forced medical care through a drug treatment court is effective. There is no valid systematic research presented concerning these courts, only anecdotal stories that are presented as facts. This is where Kennedy could make a difference. He should lobby for decriminalizing individuals and allow them access to the medical care they may need. He should lobby for collective research into new effective drug and alcohol treatments. He should lobby for malpractice lawsuits for poorly run treatment facilities. He should lobby for prevention programs and harm reduction programs that are effective. He should lobby that those with substance disorder are not in need of incarceration but in need of effective affordable treatment by caring professionals of their choice, professionals that understand and do not threaten patients with incarceration. Forcing dated and ineffective substance disorder medical care through the court system is not the answer.

Mr. Kennedy, incarceration is not a powerful motivator for getting help; incarceration creates fear and contempt. Americans will access the care that they need when good research based care is provided and affordable; care that is based on compassion, not threats from policy makers. Compassion and understanding is the motivator for getting help, Mr. Kennedy.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

Written in reaction to: Treatment or Jail: Patrick Kennedy Wages Fierce Anti-Pot Crusade by Tony Dokoupil