JOHNSTON — Legalized marijuana has been “a disaster” for Colorado, and other states should be wary of loosening laws to allow more access to the drug.

That was the message members of Project SAM, which is an acronym for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, had for 200 state officials and anti-drug activists who attended a half-day symposium Thursday afternoon at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

The symposium, which was partially sponsored by the Iowa Alliance for Coalitions for Change and the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, comes in the run-up to the 2014 legislative session during which legislation to legalize marijuana for medical purposes is expected to be introduced again.

“Right now, there is a false dichotomy that the only two options for dealing with marijuana are either legalize or lock 'em up,” said Kevin Sabet, director of Project SAM. “We really reject bumper-sticker policy solutions, and we’re really going for a health-first approach, not incarcerating low-level marijuana users but also not opening up marijuana to the legal market to what we worry will be the new tobacco industry of our age.”

The third way, Sabet said, is treatment for people using marijuana, and on the medical side, “we urge research into the non-smoked components of marijuana so it’s available at a pharmacy.”

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have public medical marijuana programs, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use.

In October, a Gallup poll showed a clear majority of Americans — 58 percent — said the drug should be legalized for the first time since the polling company began asking the question in 1969.

“We’ve seen referrals for adolescent treatment skyrocket to four times what it was in the last couple years. We’ve seen a doubling in traffic fatalities with a driver who is positive for marijuana since 2006,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, who runs an adolescent treatment center in Denver and who was part of the SAM tour.

He spent part of the meeting showing examples of the ads used by marijuana shops in the state — some of which featured women in skimpy outfits and had sexually suggestive themes — and describing marijuana products, such as soda pop, candy and cupcakes, for sale in the state.

Gov. Terry Branstad has been adamantly opposed to marijuana legalization in the past, as have his top drug policy appointees. Earlier this week, Branstad indicated dim prospects for marijuana legalization legislation in an answer he gave during a radio call-in show.

“Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future," he said. "Colorado has done that, and they’re having a lot of problems. I think the state of Washington has. We’re going to be looking at the impact that’s had and some of the challenges and problems. But I just don’t see support in the Iowa Legislature to legalize marijuana.”

This week, an Iowa native who helped create New Mexico’s medical marijuana program hosts a pair of talks in the state about his experience.

In a telephone call Thursday morning, Dr. Steve Jenison said the program has helped thousands of New Mexicans ease their “pain and suffering through a highly regulated program.”

In New Mexico, 23 licensed providers sell marijuana to thousands of residents who are prescribed the drug by medical professionals, Jenison said. The providers pay annual taxes of at least $10,000 a year up to $30,000 a year. Jenison said he “is not aware of any evidence” the program has led to higher usage by people who aren’t legally allowed to use it.