Protecting children and vulnerable adults from the destruction substance abuse can cause should not be a partisan issue. In fact, saving a generation from the scourge of addictive drugs is going to require effective government policy, private sector ingenuity, and leaders of both major parties.
That's why I've teamed up with former Democrat Congressman Patrick Kennedy and conservative author David Frum to support a new initiative to protect young people from drugs and roll back recent advances by groups seeking to expand drug use through legalization.
For me, this is a deeply personal issue. For seven years I lived with my two parents while they were helpless against the addictions that had befallen them. The destruction of their physical health, their mental and emotional capacity, and our family is something I never want to see happen to anyone else.
No one sets out with the goal of developing a substance abuse problem, but it occurs when vulnerability, availability, and permissibility all meet. In fact, the National Institutes of Health report that 1 in 6 people who try marijuana as a kid even once will become addicted to it. Marijuana affects young people in particular ways, hindering their intellectual capacity and school performance, as well as their motivation.
Drugs like marijuana are not like typical goods in a marketplace, or even like the pot that became popularized in the 1960s. Today's marijuana is far more powerful, more addictive, and causes more mental and physical damage than ever before -- in fact, today's marijuana is about 5-6 times stronger than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. And too many Americans are using it, with devastating results.
Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) is a response to the lavishly funded efforts by a variety of groups -- including billionaire financier George Soros, Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis, and University of Phoenix founder John Sperling to expand marijuana use by redefining the drug as "medicine," removing its negative social stigma, and grow its acceptance.
Although often mocked pro-marijuana advocates, Nancy Reagan's 1980s "Just Say No" campaign proved extremely effective in reminding parents and children alike of how to respond to opportunities to take drugs. Unfortunately, "Just Say No" has been slowly replaced by "medical marijuana" as the dominant framework in public policy debate. Marijuana, according to these activists, is just "medicine."
But it's not. We have a process in America for approving new medicines, one that has been supported by Republicans and Democrats alike for a hundred years. And whole, smoked marijuana consistently fails to meet the test. Smoked cannabis, it turns out, is not medicine. We don't need to derive whatever therapeutic benefit it might have by smoking it any more than we need to smoke opium to get the effect of morphine.
Marijuana use has been linked to significant and permanent drops in IQ and mental capacity among young people, addiction, a long list of physical problems, as well as a greater likelihood of abuse of other drugs in the future.
Yet, through persistent marketing, marijuana advocates have succeeded in creating just enough myth and confusion about the drug's health "benefits" that has shifted public opinion in some quarters toward legalization. This has been their intention all along.
Project SAM embraces smart reform of marijuana laws by dealing with use as a health problem while keeping it out of the hands of potential new users by maintaining its prohibition. Project SAM shifts the debate in a constructive direction and away from those who seek to define "reform" as widespread legalization and the resulting explosion of marijuana use. Real reform would mean more treatment and prevention education, not increased access to a drug that sends more kids to treatment than all other drugs combined.
We know from research that if we can help a child to stay away from drugs until they are at least 21, there is a 90 percent chance that person will never become a drug user, and therefore never an addict. We also know that maintaining the drug's negative social stigma, its status as illegal, and parental disapproval of drug use are all powerful motivators to keep kids away from drugs.
The difference between the Project SAM approach and the pro-legalization approach is clear: Our team advocates reforms that will reduce drug use, while the legalization crowd would see a dramatic increase in the number of Americans getting high every day. Given the awesome power for drug use to destroy lives and families, as it did it in my home, this is a battle we must fight and win.