Jeffrey Steinborn, Longtime Pot Activist, Says Heavy-Hitting Newcomers "Don't Know What They're Doing"

With former U.S. Attorney John McKay, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and travel guru Rick Steves bringing unprecedented clout to a new marijuana-legalization effort, the activists who have worked so long on this issue are, of course, falling in line behind them. OK, that was a joke.

As Ben Livingston of the Cannabis Defense Coalition tells SW, the pot activist community isn't just divided. "We're halved, then quartered, then eighthed," he says. Add to that the fact that the new initiative is stealing the show from entrenched players, and naturally there's all sorts of sniping.

One of the sharpest critics is veteran marijuana defense attorney Jeffrey Steinborn (pictured above). "They don't know what they're doing," says Steinborn of McKay and company. "It's kind of a tragedy."

Steinborn and his associate Douglas Hiatt are founders of Sensible Washington, a group that has been pushing Initiative 1149, which would remove all state criminal and civil penalties related to marijuana use and distribution. The group is running out of time to get the 241,000 signatures it needs by July 8 to make it on the fall ballot. "Things don't look good," Steinborn admits.

McKay's group, which goes under the name New Approach Washington, already seems better organized and funded, and it is only starting its effort to go before the legislature or be put on the 2012 ballot. Insurance magnate and would-be drug reformer Peter Lewis has pledged an undisclosed amount of matching funds, according to Alison Holcomb, who took a leave from her job at the ACLU to serve as New Approach's campaign director.

"He wouldn't even talk to us," says Steinborn of Lewis. Steinborn basically has the same beef about the New Approach people. Because longtimers like he and Hiatt weren't consulted, he maintains, the newcomers' initiative has all kind of "flaws." For one thing, the regulatory system it proposes would have pot sold at state-licensed stores (not, contrary to what some think, liquor stores or those run by state employees but privately run pot stores that are licensed by the state Liquor Control Board).

"Where are you going to find the fools to run these stores?" asks Steinborn, noting that the feds have indicated that they intend to aggressively enforce federal laws prohibiting pot distribution.

And, he says, "people aren't going to bother" buying at these stores anyway, because they'd only be able to buy an ounce of pot at a time. People can have access to much more pot by simply growing their own, he says.

Holcomb responds that she doesn't know why anyone would need to have more than an ounce, which is roughly equal to a pack of cigarettes. "Maybe when you're buying from the black market, you buy a whole bunch at a time because you don't know when you're going to have access again." But this initiative would change that.

As for finding people to run pot stores, she says, "We know right now there are plenty of people who are willing to run medical marijuana dispensaries," and that's without state sanction.

Holcomb also contends that it's Steinborn and Hiatt who aren't willing to consult with anybody else, having filed an earlier attempt at a legalization initiative during a legislative session in which two related bills were already under consideration.

Ironically, Holcomb, Steinborn and Hiatt all used to work in the same legal office years ago, which undoubtedly accounts for some of the emotions involved. One thing Holcomb and Steinborn agree upon is that their clash has become personal.

Ultimately, though, Holcomb and her heavy-hitting allies may not need the support of Steinborn, or indeed any of the established pot activists. Even Steinborn admits that New Approach "has the political muscle" to succeed where others have failed.

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