News & Politics

UPDATE: Money, Politics, and a Kennedy Collide in DC’s Marijuana Legalization Fight

A campaign against legalizing marijuana in DC is forming.

Former representative Patrick Kennedy, left, and anti-marijuana activist Will Jones, center. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Even with a polling advantage that suggests a two-to-one advantage, the push to legalize marijuana in DC was bound to run into some kind of organized opposition, and today that push back arrived in the form of former Representative Patrick Kennedy, who joined a group of locals to warn District residents of the dangers of cannabis.

Their messaging—that legalized pot would create the “scourge of a third legal drug” that would inevitably fall into the mouths of children—hit all the usual notes of a 20th-century anti-drug message, plus a dire warning that marijuana legalization is being pushed by “millionaires and billionaires” seeking to profit off weed the same way big alcohol and tobacco companies have.

While the DC Cannabis Campaign, the organization pushing DC voters to approve legalization when it appears on ballots on November 4, wants to make it free and easy for adults 21 and over to grow, use, and share marijuana, their initiative does not create a taxed and regulated retail market like those seen in Colorado and Washington state. But there is still big money at play in DC’s debate over legalized pot, and Kennedy’s presence alone is the strongest reminder.

Kennedy, who has fought addictions to prescription medications, appeared on behalf of his group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an organization he founded in January 2013 with former White House drug policy adviser Kevin Sabet that seeks a “commonsense, third-way approach to marijuana policy.” Will Jones, the 24-year-old of the local anti-legalization effort unveiled today, openly cites SAM’s talking points and Sabet’s work on the website for his “Two Is Enough” campaign. Soon, Jones says, his group will start plastering billboards, Metro stations, and other advertising platforms with their messaging.

Adam Eidinger, the head of the DC Cannabis Campaign, says via text message that he believes SAM and Jones are possibly using federal money to finance their push against his ballot initiative. Eidinger also accuses the project of having ties to Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), an Alexandria-based organization funded by grants from federal agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy and several pharmaceutical corporations.

UPDATE, 9:17 PM: In a phone interview, Sabet tells Washingtonian that Eidinger is incorrect. “The ‘no on 71 campaign’ is not funded by the pharmaceutical industry or any taxpayer money nor is TIE DC, nor is Project SAM,” Sabet says. (Original post resumes below.)

SAM’s website includes a note from Janueary 2013 about CADCA’s founding in 1992. More pertinently, it features extensive statements against medical marijuana programs. Kennedy and Sabet are all for cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals, but not smoking or eating marijuana as treatment for chronic illnesses. SAM was also cited by the Washington Post in its editorial Monday opposing legalization.

Backers of legalization say groups like Two Is Enough and SAM are pushing outdated and discredited statements about cannabis.

“All this information is talking points that came from the 1980s,” says Malik Burnett, the DC Cannabis Campaign’s vice-chairman.

Eidinger’s pro-pot push isn’t without its own corporate backing. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a California-based manufacturer of hemp-based hygiene products, has donated $95,000 to the legalization effort, accounting for 47 percent of the DC Cannabis Campaign’s total fundraising, according to documents filed with the DC Office of Campaign Finance.

But the Two Is Enough campaign’s finance issues might be more basic than its donor roll. Jones freely admits that he hasn’t registered with OCF, even though he says he’s been organizing an opposition to Initiative 71 since late July, when he registered his website and started attending community meetings throughout the city.

“It’s grassroots,” Jones says. “We need to register. We’re in the process of fundraising.”

He also spoke at a SAM conference in Orlando on July 20, giving a “DC Update” on a panel titled “How You Can Put a Group Together to Counter Marijuana Ballot and Legislative Measures.”

The Two Is Enough website was registered seven days later. Eidinger says he plans on filing a complaint with OCF.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.