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CHICAGO — Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy is urging Illinois lawmakers not to legalize marijuana, warning that the commercialization of pot will have "devastating consequences" for public health.

Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, is the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which lobbies against legalization nationwide. After getting in a car crash in 2006, he wrote a book, "A Common Struggle," about his fight with bipolar disorder and abuse of OxyContin and alcohol. He later launched Kennedy Forum Illinois, to advocate for better access to treatment of mental health and drug abuse.

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In his letter this week, Kennedy warned that the drug is being put into kid-friendly gummy bears, ice creams and sodas, and that high-potency extracts are far more powerful than grass of the past.

Noting investments by alcohol and tobacco companies in the lucrative industry, Kennedy concluded, "We must put public health and safety -- and our kids -- ahead of the interests of Big Marijuana."

In response, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano acknowledged that marijuana carries some risk, but that regulating it like the more harmful alcohol or tobacco would do more to restrict its use to adults, subdue illicit sales and adulterated products, and enforce penalties for driving under the influence. As with alcohol, he said, most people prefer lower potency varieties, and consume less when they have something stronger.

"Instead of reflexively opposing marijuana legalization," Armentano wrote, "lawmakers, regulators, and pundits like Patrick Kennedy and SAM should welcome the opportunity to bring these necessary and long overdue controls to the cannabis market."

In May, Illinois lawmakers are expected to consider a proposal to legalize licensed marijuana sales to adults. If approved, it would likely take effect next year. The state already allows the sale of marijuana to patients with certain illnesses.

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