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A national anti-marijuana organization put down roots in Connecticut on Monday and warned that legalization efforts are poised to create a public health crisis in the form of the “next Big Tobacco.”

At a Hartford press conference, the Connecticut Association of Prevention Practitioners announced it would be partnering with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national group co-founded by former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy and Kevin Sabet, a former White House policy advisor.

Sabet said that the marijuana movement that has led to the drug’s legal recreational use in the states of Colorado and Washington is being driven by money and not from a “mom and pop” marijuana industry. He said it is “multimillion dollar, multinational conglomerate.”

“This is not your old college roommate from the ‘70s with long hair in a drum circle,” he said. “. . . They look a lot more like the hedge fund managers an hour away from this state than they do your old college buddy.”

The new partnership and a panel discussion Monday at the state Capitol come as the state is setting up its medical marijuana program which was adopted in 2012 and is considered one of the most tightly regulated programs of its kind.

Last month, the state Consumer Protection Department named the four companies that have been approved to grow the substance at facilities in West Haven, Portland, Simsbury, and Watertown. The agency plans to announce five licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries within the next couple of months and expects that they will have cannabis on their shelves for patients by sometime this summer.

During the press conference, Sabet and Connecticut Association of Prevention Practitioners Director John Daviau did not call for a repeal of the program but suggested the legislature consider policies to enable police to test the level of the drug’s active chemical in the blood of drivers.

“In this state the political reality is that medical marijuana is here, now the question is: are we going to handle it responsibly or irresponsibly?” Sabet said.

Medical marijuana laws are often viewed as a step in a national movement toward outright legalization. Sabet said his group was trying to stem any efforts to allow the drug beyond its medical use.

“This is as far as we’re going to go. That next step . . . is not going to happen here in Connecticut,” he said.

At a press conference in January, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he did not view Connecticut’s medical marijuana law, which he anticipates will be used as a model for other states, as a step closer to legalizing the drug for recreational use here in this state.

“We don’t want to duplicate what we think are failures elsewhere and we’re not moving down the road to legalization. We decriminalized” possession of small amounts of the drug “and now we have medical marijuana and we’re very proud of that fact,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo

However, Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the law is having consequences in the way the drug is being perceived by Connecticut youth. He said he has heard his son and other young people talk about the substance as a medicine rather than an illicit drug.

“We can already see that in the children — the fear is being psychologically broken down and when the fear of certain drugs are eliminated, use is going to increase,” he said.

Sabet said his group is looking to “bridge the gap” between public perception of the drug and what he said is the medical consensus. He said he also will continue to stress the threat of a “Big Marijuana” industry funding the movement to legalize.

“It’s not about the personal use of marijuana among adults. This really is about creating the next tobacco industry and we are going to be repeating that on and on for the next few years as we have this national conversation about marijuana,” he said.