Alison Holcomb: Pot Mama

The woman behind Washington's effort to legalize marijuana isn't your stereotypical stoner.

Alison Holcomb is standing at the Initiative 502 booth at Hempfest wearing a pencil skirt and sleeveless blouse, looking like the lawyer she is. She's got flip-flops on, but there's still no mistaking that the trim, stylishly coiffed 44-year-old is, as someone at another booth puts it, "a clean-cut, respectable businesswoman."

Elsewhere, the dress code is decidedly more casual. Among the thousands of people crowding Myrtle Edwards Park on this sunny August Sunday—eating kettle corn, collecting samples of hemp soap, buying pot paraphernalia, and listening to speakers at a half-dozen stages—some women are topless, save for pasties resembling marijuana leaves.

At the booth next to Holcomb's, a marijuana dispensary is conducting games of "bong pong"—like beer pong, except that players throw ping-pong balls along a line of bongs rather than cups of beer. You don't have to look far, either, to find people using bongs in the way they were intended.

"Hey, stoners! My people!" someone will soon shout from a nearby stage. That won't be Holcomb. She's the one who will take the stage with her 4-year-old son Dashiell (named after writer Dashiell Hammett) in tow and sunnily exclaim, "Washington voters, holy cow!" Then she'll tell the assembled crowd, spread out on the lawn before her, that they have an "opportunity to make history" by voting for an initiative that would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana—a measure that she largely wrote and presides over as campaign director. "Please vote yes," she says.

Her pleading tone underscores the fact that these aren't exactly Holcomb's people, a point also apparent from the heated debates that keep breaking out at the I-502 booth. "I'm a grower," one person proclaims as he walks up to the booth. He wants to know why the initiative won't also allow him to operate a retail store. "It puts another business between me and the patient," he says, referring to clients authorized to use marijuana for medical reasons.

Someone filming a documentary about the I-502 campaign positions a boom mike over the grower, whose voice is getting louder. A young campaign volunteer engages the grower, saying the intent is to prevent "vertical integration." Holcomb stands back and lets the volunteer handle it. When the grower goes, the volunteers cluster around Holcomb. Is "preventing vertical integration" the right response? they want to know. Yes, she tells them, the point is to prevent marijuana businesses, which are to be licensed by the state, from unduly profiting by dominating different segments of the industry.

Holcomb seems unperturbed by the exchange, or by the people who pass by yelling "No on 502!" Smiling, she says the volunteers and campaign staffers are doing a great job. But I-502 operations assistant Jaclyn Kaul says the negativity is getting her down, as is "the amount of people wearing No-on-502 buttons without even stopping to talk to us." The funny thing, Kaul adds, is that I-502 volunteers regularly visit mainstream venues, like the Bite of Seattle and various farmers markets, and those crowds have seemed much more enthusiastic about the initiative.

The thing you have to recognize, though, is that I-502 was deliberately crafted for a mainstream audience. From the minute Holcomb signed on to the pot-reform movement, she came to the conclusion that "to move this issue, you have to engage people who aren't marijuana smokers—who care about this issue for some other reason." Civil liberties, for instance, or the drug war's disproportionate effect on minorities, or just the antidrug crusade's waste of taxpayer money on a useless cause.

This isn't a "pro-pot" initiative, she and campaign workers always take pains to state, it's an "anti-prohibition" initiative. That's why it contains a number of restrictions, like a minimum age of 21 for consumption, a one-ounce limit on possession, a ban on pot sales outlets within 1,000 feet of schools, and—most controversial of all—a DUI provision that would result in an automatic conviction for those found to have a certain amount of THC (a chemical contained in marijuana) in their bloodstream. A tax at every level of production and distribution would add up to 40 percent of the retail price. That money would be used for public education about marijuana, including what the campaign asserts are its potential harms.

This cautious approach is unique among pot-legalization initiatives around the country. Just as unique is the ferocity of opposition that has consequently arisen within the marijuana-activist community. "Washington state is clearly the #1 bastion of infighting," says Rob Kampia, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Marijuana Policy Project.

There was infighting in Colorado and Oregon, too, adds Keith Stroup, a founder of the national marijuana-reform group NORML, referring to the two other states that currently have legalization initiatives on the ballot. But he says that died down once the campaigns got underway. "For some reason, Washington went the other way," he says.

Witness Douglas Hiatt, a leading local reformer and defense attorney working on marijuana cases. "You're goddamned right it isn't pro-pot," he declares, referring to the initiative. "But it should be." For Hiatt, who ran previous initiatives that would have lifted all criminal laws relating to marijuana, the drug isn't merely harmless, it is "one of the safest substances on the planet" and a wonder plant that could reduce greenhouse gases. (Industrial hemp can be used in the place of wood products, he explains.) As do other I-502 opponents, he accuses Holcomb of "pandering" to soccer moms.

Holcomb herself is "a Capitol Hill soccer mom," asserts I-502 critic (and former Seattle Weekly staff writer) Philip Dawdy. She's a mom, anyway—Dashiell is a little young for soccer—and hers is a voice seldom heard in the macho world of marijuana advocacy. It's also a voice that has been extraordinarily successful: Holcomb has raised millions of dollars for her "New Approach Washington" campaign, and convinced an array of well-known, powerful people to back it.

"My goodness," exclaims Stroup. "You have the immediate past U.S. attorney [John McKay] and the sitting city attorney [Pete Holmes] acting as full sponsors. That has never happened in the U.S."

 

"I am so totally busted," Holcomb says.

She's at a coffee shop in lower Wallingford one afternoon in late August at a time that we've arranged to meet next door in the I-502 campaign office. As she waits for coffee for both her and some of her staff, she banters with the barista, displaying a fun-loving side not always apparent during her professional engagements.

Holcomb met her husband Gregg while ballroom dancing. In fact, she took a hiatus from the law profession in 1999 to move with him to California, where the two toyed with the idea of becoming professional dancers. "That lasted six months," she laughs, adding that she soon came to miss the intellectual stimulation of her old world.

Gregg took a crack at law school after giving up ballroom dancing, but decided it wasn't for him. He now bartends at Capitol Hill's Knee High Stocking Company, which ironically takes its speakeasy theme from alcohol's Prohibition years. "He's a real people person," Holcomb says admiringly as she heads, coffees in hand, back to her office. "He's great at cocktail parties." She herself is addicted enough to the lively vibe of Capitol Hill to want to stay in their small condo there, even now that Dashiell has come into their lives.

Back at the office, Paul Holmes (son of City Attorney Pete Holmes), who's working on the campaign before going back to school at Yale, is sitting at a desk. Someone else is posting new clippings about I-502 onto a wall. Holcomb settles into a back room with a little conference table and gamely answers questions about what led her to this point in her career.

You'd never know that Holcomb grew up in Oklahoma. That's because she started trying to lose her accent in high school. "I associated it with not being that bright," says Holcomb, who realized her accent problem while enrolled in a Harvard University summer-school program.

She's the kind of person who will always remember the name of the guy who narrowly beat her in becoming valedictorian: Michael Black. That defeat, she points out, was only because she devoted one of her periods to drill team, of which she was captain, rather than another academic course. Drill team, she clarifies, was for "band nerds," not prom-queen wannabes (those were the cheerleaders) or rebel pot smokers. She says she didn't then, nor does she now, use marijuana.

Even without being valedictorian, she got into Stanford, and then went on to law school at the University of Washington. "It was not the best experience," she admits, adding that UW "felt like a trade school"—focused on the nuts and bolts of practicing rather than thought-provoking legal principles. She was similarly let down by her first job in her new profession, at a firm that practiced business law. Again, legal principles weren't what animated the work. Instead, she says, it was all about "who could grind the other side down" by putting in as many hours as possible.

It was in this context that in 1995 she drifted into the small firm of Jeffrey Steinborn, hearing about the opening from a law-school friend. "He was the marijuana defense lawyer in the state of Washington," Holcomb says, explaining that Steinborn was focusing on such cases before even Hiatt came onto the scene.

Steinborn presented her with some of the intellectual stimulation she'd been craving. His office was then working on cases concerning whether it constituted double jeopardy for law enforcement to seize drug suspects' assets while criminally prosecuting them. She became the firm's go-to person on the topic, and also became an expert on the procedure for expunging a criminal record. An article she wrote about wiping records clean was so good, Steinborn recalls, that the state Criminal Guidelines Commission used it to train its members. Eventually, Holcomb and Steinborn became partners.

To those who don't know, it could come as a shock that Holcomb once worked for Steinborn. Her former employer has become almost as vociferous a critic of I-502 as Hiatt, who once worked alongside Holcomb in Steinborn's office. Among other criticisms, Steinborn says the hefty taxes would raise marijuana's price to $500 an ounce, leaving the black market—where an ounce can be had for $200—alive and well. While he insists he harbors no personal animosity towards Holcomb, he also is not speaking to her, he says, "until I have anything nice to say"—a stance Hiatt also has adopted.

While he can be blunt and caustic, Holcomb says the older lawyer also has a courtly side that matches her belief that "you catch more flies with honey." He would bring courtroom staff bouquets of dahlias grown in his garden, and treat opposing counsel with respect. Holcomb absorbed the lesson: "When you have a case that is a loser, you don't do your client any favors by being rude.

"He really was like a second dad," Holcomb says of Steinborn, and not just for teaching her the ways of the courtroom. She cites a time she had to go to Yakima for a case, and he asked if she had checked her oil and packed jumper cables.

She spent seven years with Steinborn, during which time, she says, she became convinced the drug war was unjust. She recalls seeing the terror in the eyes of one young man caught transporting cocaine to Canada. A musician about to cut a demo, he had no criminal record, yet was looking at a decade in prison. The harsh stakes seemed wrong.

In 2000, the King County Bar Association launched an innovative project examining the wisdom of the drug war. Steinborn was invited to an early meeting, but couldn't go. Holcomb asked if she could go in his stead. That's how she met Andy Ko.

 

Ko, now head of a drug-policy project for billionaire George Soros' Open Society Foundations, was then leading a drug-reform effort for the ACLU of Washington. The topic was a new direction for the ACLU, but one Ko saw as consistent with the organization's mission of protecting civil liberties. Indeed, he says, the drug war touches on countless issues dear to the ACLU: mass incarceration, racial disparity in enforcement, due process, search and seizure, forfeiture of assets, even the right to vote (because felons are denied it).

Holcomb's work for the bar project impressed Ko. A few years later, he had the same impression when Holcomb served on a committee formed to implement an initiative he'd drafted: Initiative 75, which made marijuana enforcement the lowest priority for Seattle police. When the local ACLU decided to break out its drug-policy work by creating a separate marijuana project, Ko recruited Holcomb to take it on.

"She just dove into it," he says. "She's extremely well-organized. She's the person with the list, with the neat office." She also proved to have a knack developing relationships, Ko notes. One of the most important turned out to be with Rick Steves, the travel-guidebook author and TV host.

Holcomb pursued Steves for a public-education campaign she was tasked with creating, eventually dubbed "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation." It was Holcomb's first attempt to bring the issue before a mainstream audience, and she badly wanted Steves to host a TV spot that was to be the centerpiece of the campaign. "We obviously wanted to avoid the stereotypes," Holcomb explains. "We wanted someone safe." Steves had been speaking out about marijuana reform, and served on the board of NORML. But he presented himself, Holcomb thought, in a "reassuring" way.

"I kind of stalked him," she says. She sent him a bunch of e-mails. He didn't respond. She found out he was speaking at a NORML conference in Los Angeles, and followed him around until she could talk to him. They went outside and sat down on a bench, and Holcomb explained that she wanted this to be a serious program, with respected community figures, that might reach what she called the "middle third"—those who opposed the nation's drug policy but hadn't been presented with any alternatives.

"This is for real," Steves remembers thinking. Holcomb wasn't just another one of those activist "bloggers" he says were forever trying to drag him into their personal crusade. He was up for the challenge.

Steves, just back from an Alaskan vacation in early September, says his travels have influenced his way of thinking about marijuana. "I've spent time in societies where smoking a joint is about as exciting as opening a can of beer, and it doesn't seem to mess up those societies," he says. He's coy about his own marijuana use, preferring to focus on the civil-liberties aspect of the issue, but has acknowledged that he has occasionally sampled it.

He first spoke out about it in the '80s, he recalls, and it's instructive to note just how different the climate was then. This was the dawn of the "Just Say No" era, and the antidrug D.A.R.E. program was beginning in schools. Steves was then dating a KIRO radio producer who was working on a program about marijuana. KIRO wanted a pot smoker to take the contrarian position, and asked Steves if he would do it. Steves agreed, but felt compelled to appear on the show with a fake name. He was introduced as an "honest, churchgoing local businessman."

About 10 years ago, he was ready to go on the record as one who endorsed marijuana legalization. "I've got some celebrity," he thought, and voiced his position at an event at the University of Washington's Kane Hall. "It was really scary," he says. "I remember being pushed into a chair and having four cameras around me." He says the reporters with the cameras asked him questions like "Do you publicly admit to smoking marijuana?"

In time, he got a lot of positive feedback on his outspokenness. Yet, he says, "It was very veiled. People would say 'I love your show, and I appreciate the other work you're doing too.' "

"What?" he'd think. "Say the word. Say marijuana."

By 2007, when Holcomb was producing "Time for a Conversation," marijuana reform was becoming less taboo. Medical marijuana, legalized by a 1998 initiative, had become increasingly common. I-75 had passed, and the King County Bar Association had concluded its project with a call to end prohibition. So a variety of what Steves approvingly calls "boring, wonkish people" agreed to participate in the televised program. The only hitch was, Steves recalls, that "the networks were too afraid to air it" in prime time, "so it ran after the 'Girls Gone Wild' ads at 2 in the morning."

Holcomb remembers what one of the TV executives said to her and ACLU executive director Kathleen Taylor when they asked how they could foster a debate if they couldn't get on TV: "If you want a debate, get something on the ballot."

 

Holcomb convened her first meeting about a potential initiative in September 2010. To understand who was—and wasn't—invited, you have to know something about the tumultuous couple of years that had preceded it.

Marijuana was becoming a subject of interest among state legislators. Some introduced bills to try to sort out the confusing mess resulting from the state's vague medical-marijuana law, which allows patients to use cannabis but not to access it reliably, since officials deem dispensaries, despite their widespread proliferation, to be illegal. Other legislators introduced bills that would have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized it outright.

The ACLU does not normally run initiatives. So in 2007 Holcomb turned her attention to working on legislation. Shortly afterward, Ko left the local ACLU, and Holcomb took his place as the organization's point person on drug reform. Legislators relied heavily on her input—so much so that state Rep. Roger Goodman, who before getting elected to the legislature headed the county bar's drug-policy project, says there was an impression among his colleagues that the various marijuana measures were "ACLU bills." Indeed, Holcomb often edited draft after draft.

That cut both ways in the legislature, depending on lawmakers' views of the ACLU, Goodman says. And it did so in the marijuana-activism world as well. "I have immense respect for Alison as a very smart, incredibly articulate spokesperson for our cause," says I-502 opponent Dawdy, expressing a typical view. "But she has a history of flubbing the details." He brings up one provision in a medical-marijuana bill that would have allowed law enforcement to search patients' home grows. "The ACLU doesn't care about the details because it doesn't affect them," Dawdy continues. Holcomb in particular, he says, is not "intimate" enough with cannabis to appreciate the fine print.

In January 2010, Dawdy, Hiatt, and Steinborn, among others, decided to take things into their own hands by filing an initiative that would lift all state criminal laws relating to marijuana. The approach of Sensible Washington, the organization behind the campaign, was the opposite of Holcomb's: There would be no details. No regulation. No taxation.

That's when, Holcomb says, "everything went to hell."

She was furious because the timing of the announcement happened just two days before a hearing on a decriminalization bill she had worked hard on, and which had won the endorsement of King County's bar association and medical society. With the press turning its attention to the initiative rather than the decriminalization bill, she thought legislators would surely punt the controversial issue to voters. "There was nothing we could do but go into the hearing and smile," she says.

The outcome was as she predicted. Holcomb felt strongly that Sensible Washington's initiative, without any regulation at all, would "go down in flames, and it would set back reform efforts." She drafted a statement outlining what became the ACLU's position opposed to the initiative, and shared it with those who asked.

"They torpedoed us," Hiatt says of Holcomb and her ACLU colleagues. "They did lots of trash-talking about us behind our back." He's especially bitter about what he feels is Holcomb's role in convincing the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) not to provide Sensible Washington with funding. The campaign ended up relying on volunteer signature-gatherers, and failed to qualify for the ballot in 2010. (Hiatt's organization also failed in 2011, and is now trying to get on the 2013 ballot.)

"The power that Steinborn and Hiatt attribute to me is hilarious," counters Holcomb. She says it conveys a wrongheaded notion that organizations like the SEIU "can't think for themselves."

There was enough bad blood by September 2010, when the ACLU had given up on the legislative route and began talks about its own initiative, that Holcomb didn't invite the Sensible Washington crowd, including the man who'd been a father figure to her. The exclusion, in turn, reinforced the notion in some quarters that Holcomb was an out-of-touch interloper who failed to consult with the people who'd been working on the issue the longest.

If some local activists were shut out, though, an impressive array of prominent national activists answered Holcomb's call for a brainstorming session. Among those flying in were NORML's Stroup, Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann, and Graham Boyd, an adviser to Ohio insurance magnate and drug-reform advocate Peter Lewis.

Holcomb says she knew she had to win the support of some national players to be financially viable, and came to the meeting armed with exactly what she knew they wanted to see: polling.

"I was pretty impressed," Kampia recalls. "The polling was solid. It was done by real polling firms, with real margins of error." And, he says, it indicated that the number of state voters opposed to marijuana prohibition was "higher than in almost any other state." More than 60 percent of respondents in the ACLU-commissioned polls supported ending criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

Kampia's organization didn't invest any money in I-502. It saved its funding for its own initiatives, including a legalization measure in Colorado currently on the ballot. But Boyd, who knew Holcomb from his prior work as head of a national drug-reform effort for the ACLU, proved an essential conduit to Lewis. The businessman donated $250,000 for a signature drive, then later kicked in another $550,000. Nadelmann's organization contributed $600,000. In all, New Approach has raised just over $3 million, while the opposition's fundraising total stands below $6,000 as of the most recent state Public Disclosure Commission filing.

Those in on the early discussions recall that there was an easy consensus that an initiative needed to court the mainstream, and that there was an obvious way to do that. "It needed to look like as much like a hard-alcohol model as possible," Holcomb says. Hence the decision to make 21, rather than 18, the minimum age for consumption; to tightly regulate where marijuana could be grown and sold; and to make the tax equivalent to the "sin tax" collected for alcohol.

Holcomb held several meetings to go over the main bullet points, and then, with the help of a few select advisers, hammered out an intricate 64-page ballot measure. It was only after Holcomb filed the initiative in July 2011 that many of the people she had been consulting with got to see it.

 

One thing in particular Holcomb didn't divulge about the initiative's text until the end: the DUI provision. It sets a so-called "per se" standard that would result in an automatic DUI conviction if a person's bloodstream is found to contain 5 nanograms of active THC—unless that person is under 21, in which case any finding of active THC would be enough to convict. Currently, prosecutors can use evidence of THC levels in DUI cases, but there is no nanogram-based standard. A prosecutor must prove that a person's marijuana use—no matter how heavy—resulted in impaired driving. (See Keegan Hamilton's "The High Road," SW, March 7, 2012.)

For years, NORML, among others, had argued against per se marijuana laws. Paul Amentano, the organization's point person on the issue, says the science doesn't support a hard-and-fast rule. A few studies do show an increased risk of crashing at 5 nanograms, as the I-502 campaign has pointed out. But, he says, the effect of cannabis "varies from user to user," with habitual pot smokers less likely to be impacted by small amounts.

For medical-marijuana patients, the issue is vital. Many say that their regular use of cannabis would make them fail any given blood test. Seattle Weekly's "Toke Signals" columnist Steve Elliott, who also operates Voice Media Group's Toke of the Town blog, says the initiative "effectively outlaws us from getting behind the wheel of a car and being productive members of society."

Holcomb contends that there are no studies backing up that view. Yet she knew as she was writing the initiative that a DUI provision would be contentious, and that the ACLU itself had opposed per se provisions.

At the same time, though, survey results from California's failed Proposition 19, a hard-fought marijuana-legalization initiative, were coming in. She says they showed that a substantial proportion of the initiative's initial supporters had changed their minds and voted no because of concerns about stoned driving. A local poll reinforced the relevance for Washington: A full 62 percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to vote for a legalization initiation if it included a DUI provision.

"Nobody was happy about it," says Holcomb, but "we knew it was something we had to address."

Steinborn feels otherwise. "My choice would have been to educate the public rather than to appease their ignorance," he says. When Holcomb asked NORML for an endorsement, he, as a board member, had an opportunity to express his feelings. The board talked it over at its annual meeting in early 2012. Steinborn, sailing off the coast of Guatemala, participated by phone. The prevailing sentiment, Steinborn recalls, was that "Washington should take one for the movement." The DUI provision would not be as important as the "shot heard around the world" by what would likely be the first state in the country to legalize marijuana.

"It just pisses me off," Steinborn says of that attitude. But he went along with the others and voted to endorse the measure, reasoning that he could perhaps get the board to simultaneously issue a statement listing its concerns. The board voted down such a statement. "We didn't want to send a half-hearted message," Stroup explains.

Stroup also recognizes something else: Without a DUI provision, I-502 likely wouldn't have gotten its jaw-dropping list of sponsors.

Steves, who had worked with Holcomb, was an easy sell. As Holcomb wrote the initiative, she sounded out some other people. She sent a few drafts to Pete Holmes. The new city attorney had run on a platform that included stopping prosecution of simple possession cases, and he had also worked hard with Holcomb on behalf of a 2011 medical-marijuana bill that would have legalized dispensaries. (The bill passed, but Gov. Chris Gregoire ended up vetoing much of it.) Holmes was so supportive of Holcomb's initiative that he asked her if she wanted him to sponsor it.

"Can you do that?" Holcomb asked. He checked. He could.

Holmes says he would never have agreed without the DUI provision, which he calls a matter of "public safety." It was so important to him that at the same time he was lobbying for the medical-marijuana bill, he proposed another bill (later sponsored by Goodman) that would have established a per se standard. After all, he points out, "We have a per se standard for alcohol."

The city attorney then sought the support of McKay, a fellow Catholic parishioner who had already spoken publicly about his growing conviction that the drug war is a failure, largely because of the violent gangs that have taken over the market. He too says he was willing to make the leap into supporting a legalization initiative because of regulations like the DUI provision. "Most people, I among them, don't want impaired drivers on the roads with them and their families," he says.

Similarly, fellow sponsor Roger Roffman, a University of Washington professor emeritus of social work, says "I wouldn't have wanted to be connected to an initiative that didn't take into account the dangers of driving while stoned." Even so, Roffman says he had to wrestle with the idea for some time, and his decision to sign on says a lot about the broader approach of I-502. The UW academic has been researching marijuana use ever since he served as a social worker in the Army during the Vietnam War. He has come to the conclusion that marijuana use, while relatively harmless for some people, carries risks for others: teens, whose cognitive development can be affected; heavy users, who may find themselves dependent on the drug; and schizophrenics, who increase their chances of having a psychotic episode.

Holcomb had recruited Roffman to help her draft pieces of the initiative, and it reflects his viewpoint. Pot's potential dangers are recognized in money set aside for education, treatment, and research. He says he realized that this was the public-health approach he had always advocated.

Bill Clapp, a retired businessman and philanthropist focusing on Latin America, says he was moved to donate $25,000 when he saw that "serious people" were backing the initiative. A self-described "very centrist person," he, like McKay, developed an antipathy to the drug war because of the violent black market it fostered.

Every week, it seems, another big name is endorsing the initiative: former Seattle FBI agent Charlie Mandigo, Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, and philanthropist Harriet Bullitt, who contributed $100,000. A concentrated effort to reach out to African-Americans, including a couple of luncheons with speakers who highlighted the drug war's impact on black families, resulted in the support of several prominent pastors and the regional conference of the NAACP. The statewide Children's Alliance, also saying it was concerned about racial bias in drug enforcement and the effect on minority children, endorsed the initiative earlier this month. The ACLU of Washington—which still employs Holcomb despite the separate campaign office, reporting her salary as an "in-kind" contribution—is another backer.

On a recent day in I-502's campaign office, outreach director and former Seattle prosecutor Tonia Winchester smilingly informs Holcomb of the latest coup: the backing of a majority of the Whatcom County Council and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.

"That's a big deal!" Holcomb enthuses, explaining that Linville, a former legislator elected mayor after a tough race, had not previously been "gung-ho about the issue."

Meanwhile, the campaign is driving home its mainstream message with a TV advertising blitz that features a middle-aged mother of four earnestly proclaiming that she personally doesn't like marijuana, but sees the need for "a conversation." Holcomb makes no bones about the fact that it is a direct appeal to women voters, who historically have been far less strident on the issue than men. Lest anybody miss the point, there is Holcomb herself at campaign events, with Gregg likely nearby, their son slung over his shoulders.

 

To opponents, Holcomb is the devil. Ben Livingston, long affiliated with the Cannabis Defense Coalition, describes one debate held at City Hall in April. Given the volatility of marijuana activists, Livingston explains, the CDC has adopted hand signals from the Occupy movement so that people can express themselves without interrupting speakers. A "twinkling" of hands held high, for instance, conveys agreement; twinkling with fingers down, disagreement. As Holcomb spoke, though, Livingston noticed a new hand signal from a few members of the crowd: devil's horns.

Livingston says he's getting "more and more offended" by the animosity he sees spreading over I-502, some of which he says has been directed at him. Months ago, the CDC's board fired Livingston as its executive director. While the board gave various reasons, including decisions he made about a new office without board approval, he contends that the real reason is that he is sympathetic to I-502, while most board members are vehemently opposed.

The divisiveness reached farcical proportions shortly before Hempfest, at a press conference Dawdy held to announce a new group of medical-marijuana activists opposed to I-502—where he ended up being fired by group president Kurt Boehl within earshot of reporters. Boehl, an attorney, said Dawdy misrepresented the group, which Boehl portrayed as a trade organization whose mission was not just about attacking I-502.

Steve Sarich, who runs a medical-marijuana "collective garden" (allowed by the state instead of dispensaries) and is one of the brashest local pot activists, is heading the official No on I-502 groups. He says he plans to appeal to the mainstream too. "We'll be speaking at PTA meetings around the state so that mothers know what happens if their kids smoke a joint," he says, meaning a DUI conviction "on their permanent record."

Responds Holcomb: "I can't imagine that there are moms who want their children to be driving under the influence."

Still, Sarich calls I-502 a "Trojan horse," suggesting that its backers' true agenda is to nail marijuana users with the DUI provision. Others have suggested that Holcomb and her ilk are in league with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to trap marijuana providers, since the initiative instructs the state to cooperate with federal law enforcement and would result in licensing records that could identify business owners. Steinborn has called the initiative "a law-enforcement sting in plain sight."

"Really?" Holcomb asks, flushing just a little at the outlandish charge. She notes that dispensaries are advertising in newspapers, putting sandwich boards in front of their businesses, and listing themselves on the website WeedMaps.com. In other words, the feds don't need her help to figure out who's selling pot.

As if to prove her point, a short time later Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson calls Holcomb. That morning, the DEA sent letters to 23 western Washington dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school or playground, telling them to shut down, and Johnson wants a comment. Holcomb tells Johnson she'll call him back. Putting down the phone, she says, referring to the federal crackdown, "So it's already happening." The action also reinforces her reasoning behind putting a 1,000-foot clause in the initiative. She says the idea was not to provoke the feds any more than necessary.

Just as endorsements of I-502 keep coming, the vitriol against it hits an ever higher pitch. Jodie Emery, wife of imprisoned marijuana-seed distributor Marc Emery—both of whom support I-502—says that people have written on her Facebook page that they hope her husband gets raped in prison. Stroup says that while he was standing at NORML's booth at Hempfest, he heard someone call his name. He looked up. "Fuck you!" the person yelled. A local NORML member identified the person as Sarich, who denies it.

No on I-502 volunteer Poppy Sidhu has a different Stroup story to tell. As she was delivering literature around Hempfest, she says Stroup yelled at her: "We don't want your fucking shit here."

"Not my style," responds Stroup, who says he spent Hempfest trying to defuse, not fuel, the tension. Indeed, participating in a debate on the initiative, Stroup pleads with the audience: "The debate in Washington state needs to be toned down a little. Let's not demonize each other."

At the same debate, Holcomb acknowledges the fractiousness but betrays little anxiety about it. "This is the year we all need to hold our breath, cross our heart, pray to God, or whatever, and lean forward," she says in her upbeat way. While some hostile questions are coming from the audience, and a smattering of people are walking out of the Hempfest tent in seeming disgust, Holcomb calmly delves into facts and arguments. "Here's what you need to know," she says, proceeding to explain the ins and outs of marijuana DUI policy, present and proposed.

Critics of I-502, like Dawdy, suggest that the backlash from the marijuana community might doom the initiative. Holcomb, however, says "We're trying to figure out if it's actually helping." She explains: "What research tells us is that while an overwhelming majority of Washington voters agree that treating marijuana as a crime has failed, there's also a large majority of voters who don't like marijuana." What's more, she says, the public increasingly sees medical marijuana as an "industry," rife with "potrepreneurs" looking to make money as much as to help the chronically ill and pain-stricken.

So if dispensary owners aren't happy and marijuana users feel the initiative is too restrictive, that's OK, Holcomb suggests. That might make soccer moms all the more likely to vote for it.

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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