What Is a Kennedy Doing Weedsplaining Pot's Dangers to Barack Obama?

Patrick Kennedy—former congressman, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy—got on MSNBC last night to tell Barack Obama that, contrary to the president's recent statements, marijuana is terribly, terribly dangerous. It was a bizarre message. It was even weirder, considering the messenger.

Last week, Obama made waves when he acknowledged in a long New Yorker profile that recreational pot is not the evil weed it's made out to be. "As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life," POTUS opined. "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

Not so, Kennedy argued on Monday's Hardball With Chris Matthews, in weird fashion. He was there in his capacity as a co-founder of something called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and here's what he said:

Most of us know about this issue anecdotally... I think the president needs to speak to his NIH director in charge of drug abuse, Nora Volkow, because [she] would tell the president that, in fact, today's modern, genetically modified marijuana, so it's much higher THC levels, far surpass the marijuana that the president acknowledges smoking when he was a young person. So that he is wrong when he says that it isn't very harmful...

If you have a predisposition to addiction, this is going to be a gateway… I was lucky, Chris, I got in and crashed early because I used harder drugs. Marijuana is insidious. You could be using it for most of your life and not wake up to the fact that you're on a slow train to nowhere. And that's the damaging part about marijuana for our country.

Bully for Kennedy for being upfront about his own battles with addiction. Upfront, but not entirely honest. And as a result, he's not very honest in how he attacks the president.

Yes, it's true that Kennedy was addicted to cocaine and Oxycontin. He went to rehab for other prescription drugs, including Ambien, after a car crash in Washington. He also went to Alcoholics Anonymous, with a congressman as a sponsor. In calling himself "lucky" for not having gone down a pot-paved road, he seems to miss two points: First, his real luck was having the financial and family resources, available to very few, to afford both hard drugs and drug addiction treatments. Second, it's pretty easy to become addicted to harder stuff even if you never touch the herb.

In fact, if there was a gateway drug in Kennedy's life, it may very well have been alcohol, and that was the crux of Obama's statement: not that pot is harmless, but that it's no more dangerous than booze. And the science on that point seems to agree with the president.

Led by a characteristically rambling Matthews, Kennedy never really answers this point—except in this weird elision, in which he complains about the power of the alcohol and tobacco industries:

I mean, if the president feels alcohol is worse than tobacco, what's he prepared to do? And I'll tell you, the president won't be able to do a thing. Why? Because alcohol is too powerful an industry to change. And right now, we have a chance to stop another for-profit industry from targeting our public health.

Leave aside the fact that Kennedy's family wealth is built in no small part upon liquor importation during Prohibition. Here, the former congressman's argument seems to be: Oh, well, we have these huge vice industries that we can't possibly rein in! They're already an unchangeable fact of our lives! Do we really need another such industry?

That is unbelievably defeatist talk from a former Democratic legislator, who knows firsthand the evils of drink, and the power of regulation. What accounts for Kennedy's rage against a legal weed industry and his acquiescence to the booze and cigarette makers?

As Reason's Mike Riggs points out, it might help to know that as a congressman, Kennedy earned thousands in campaign contributions from those latter industries—and that after Congress, he co-founded SAM with Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to Obama's first drug czar, and a man known alternately as pot legalization's "Enemy No. 1" and "the quarterback of the new anti-drug movement"—a label Sabet proudly includes in his SAM bio.

In fact, despite its name SAM appears to be committed to continuing criminalization of marijuana use above all. Its sparse list of affiliates includes Drug-Free Hawaii, a Maryland county-level "partnership for alcohol and other drug abuse," and a Missouri group that "seeks to halt to any legislative efforts to legalize the use of marijuana." SAM's online presentations include "Marijuana and the Teen Brain" and "But What About the Children's 12 Provisions to Prevent A Marijuana Industry from Targeting Children."

SAM is not organized as a traditional non-profit, so no immediate details about its finances were available. But if its purpose is to rebrand and renew the anti-legalization movement, cutting against the grain of public opinion, it might want to find a better spokesman than Patrick Kennedy and a better message than his confusing tangle of personal anecdotes and misremembered science.

Here's video of the full, surreal MSNBC segment, including a Kennedy cousin and a purring Matthews: