Rev. Leslie David Braxton and Steve Sarich
To the delight of a full house, last night's marijuana legalization debate pitted pro-I-502 Rev. Leslie David Braxton and anti-I-502 activist Steve Sarich against each other, showcasing the true extremes of the marijuana legalization initiative debate in Washington.
Rev. Leslie David Braxton and Steve Sarich
Intentionally or not, the Baptist preacher and the medical pot activist hiked up the entertainment value of the event with their banter, ultimately posing a vote for the initiative as a choice between the moral and the medical.
Held on the University of Washington campus and sponsored by CityClub and the UW's Debate Society, the showdown was moderated by KUOW's Steve Scher and included two other, more moderate voices on the panel. Seattle City Attorney and I-502 sponsor Pete Holmes narrated all the benefits of legalizing marijuana on a liquor board model. Pat Slack, Snohomish's drug task force commissioner, meanwhile, shed doubt on the viability of the initiative's distribution plan. He noted a gap year between legalizing the product (December 2012) and the deadline for establishing the proper stores (December 2013), which he speculated would cause a rise in black market selling and youth consumption.
Rev. Braxton began his speech by sharing his utter loathing for "marijuana or any other illegal or exotic drugs," along with personal anecdotes about the people he's seen succumb to its evils. His support for legalization hinged solely on the basis of fighting the institutionalized racism of drug convictions.
"In practice, the war on drugs has been the war on black and brown people," Braxton said as the audience hummed with approval. "If they as aggressively enforced marijuana laws on frat row here at the University of Washington or in Bellevue, [then] by the time they got to MLK or Rainier Avenue, the jails would be full."
The vehemently anti-drug pastor ("I don't treat my body like a garbage can.") is exactly the kind of voter Alison Holcomb wanted to capture when she crafted the initiative's strict penalties and DUID provisions--not crazy about recreational cannabis, but tired of a broken system.
Sarich agreed the system is broken, but pegged most of his I-502 counter arguments on the inherent flaws of that DUID provision and its 5 nanogram of active THC per liter of blood per se limit.
"As a medical marijuana patient, I will never be under 5 nanograms," he said. "I've had my blood tested and I'm probably four to five times the legal impairment limit right now. That will be every medical marijuana patient."
Sarich said this unrealistic measure of impairment would wrongfully put thousands in jail and beget a new age of prohibition. He also cited that the Department of Licensing expects $4 million in new revenue if the initiative passes, and called the cash flow proof of 10,000 expected THC impairment arrests.
"I am for legalization," Sarich said. "Unfortunately this is not legalization. Don't be fooled."
Holmes, the DUI prosecutor for the City of Seattle, tried to dispel the allegations. The arrest process for a stoned driver would be a lengthy one--probable cause to be pulled over, a drug recognition expert to find impairment and a hospital visit to get blood drawn--and would deter superficial charges.
"This is a lot of, frankly, fear mongering," Holmes said. "[An arrest is] something that'll chew up a law enforcement officer's entire day."
Holmes also stood by the science of the per se limit, but when moderator Scher asked how long he'd have to wait before hitting the road after two bong hits, the prosecutor didn't have an answer.
While Rev. Baxter tried to win the audience by condemning the racism inherent in maintaining the status quo, Sarich spooked the room's younger members with hypotheticals of losing their Pell grants and dropping out of college after an errant THC impairment arrest. The contrast between their viewpoints reached its climax when Sarich whipped out a potted cannabis plant and set it on the table.
"If you want to call [I-502] legalization," he began, gesturing to the offending vegetation, "that will be illegal for many of you that are not patients [after it passes]."
While the audience gasped with surprised laughter, Holmes calmly pointed out that Sarich's public growing display was illegal now.
"He's not black. They ain't gonna arrest him," the Reverend chimed in, bringing the room to hysterics.
Sarich unveils his cannabis plant at Wednesday's debate.
For all the spectacle's back-and-forth, there was still no clear victor between the yeas and the nays on I-502. UW seniors Steve Brey and Adam Wisch came to the debate knowing little about the initiative and left with even more questions.
"I feel really conflicted," Brey admitted.
Wisch wished the initiative was less vague about the rights of medical patients and the punishments that would be doled out.
"I am not a cannabis user and I would still be more inclined to vote for it if there were more details," he said.
Whatever the criticism, the message from New Approach supporters seems to be the same. As Holmes put it: "This is the only initiative on the ballot this fall. This is our only opportunity to make progress and we believe it is the only one that is going to pass. That makes it a perfect initiative."