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Originally published July 20, 2014 at 6:17 AM | Page modified July 20, 2014 at 2:36 PM

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Alison Holcomb: waging weed-rights war with grit, heart

With the opening of Seattle’s first fully sanctioned marijuana store, Alison Holcomb, the architect of the I-502 campaign, looks back at the legalization effort.


Seattle Times columnist

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The first time Alison Holcomb smoked marijuana wasn’t until she was 24. The details are sketchy. She was at a friend’s house for dinner, that she knows. But she can’t remember if she drew on a joint or a bong.

“I do remember the candle on the coffee table,” she said, a hint of wonder still in her voice. “How awesome it was.”

The next time Holcomb smokes marijuana could be any day now. As the chief author of Washington state’s legal pot law, Holcomb was the second person in line at Sodo’s Cannabis City on July 8, when retail sales of marijuana began statewide.

Hers was a ceremonial purchase — the first, two-gram, $40 package, anyway, which Holcomb put into a shadow box (along with the receipt) and hung in her office at the ACLU of Washington, where she is the Criminal Justice Director.

And the second, two-gram, $40 package?

“I don’t really smoke,” Holcomb said. “But my (46th) birthday is in two days, and it seemed kind of silly not to purchase this.

“Plus, I was a little bit concerned about the scarcity of supply.”

Listen to her; the former captain of her Tulsa, Okla., high-school drill team worried about how much weed she could get her hands on.

(“In high school, I had no idea all my friends were stoners.”)

But you get used to the dichotomy that Holcomb embodies: The good-girl A-student whose greatest accomplishment — so far — has been getting legal weed to the masses.

She’s the Stanford-educated lawyer in a red suit jacket and six-inch heels mixing with a shirtless dude singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” to the crowd lined up in front of Cannabis City.

Holcomb is also the mother of a 6-year-old son. She sees marijuana legalization as the first step toward a society that doesn’t incarcerate people — and fracture families — for minor drug offenses.

“People can take in and absorb the pragmatic arguments about legalizing marijuana,” Holcomb said the other day in her downtown Seattle office. “But what people have completely lost perspective of is what it means to be arrested and thrown in jail. They don’t have a realistic view of what that means, and that it has become a rite of passage for African-American men.

“That’s wrong. It’s counterproductive,” she said. “And I don’t want my son growing up in a society that is broken this way.”

Holcomb lives on Capitol Hill with her husband, Gregg, a bartender, and their son. Dashiell. Much of her joy comes from her boy, and working in their section of the neighborhood P-Patch, where she is growing dahlias and nurturing a single tomato plant.

“It’s so Zen,” she said.

And it is far from Tulsa, where Holcomb’s father was a geologist and her mother worked in marketing. They divorced when Holcomb was in sixth grade. Her mother moved to Manhattan, leaving her and her younger brother with their father, who later married the mother of Holcomb’s best friend.

In high school, Holcomb attended a summer-school program at Harvard that whet her appetite for higher learning. But once at Stanford, her near-valedictorian status in Tulsa meant little.

“I got my ass handed to me,” she said. “I realized I was no longer the smartest kid in the class.”

She learned to master the all-nighter and to cover every base, which not only prepared her for law school at the University of Washington (where she enrolled in 1989), but the I-502 campaign.

It all started with her first job, working in the law office of Jeffrey Steinborn, who defended those charged with marijuana offenses.

In 2000, Steinborn asked Holcomb to fill in for him at a meeting at the King County Bar Association, which was launching a project examining the drug war. She became fluent in issues like due process, search and seizure and mass incarceration.

That led to work on Initiative 75, which made marijuana enforcement the lowest priority for the Seattle Police Department.

That planted the seed (sorry) for further work on marijuana reform. Holcomb joined the ACLU in 2007 as its drug-reform expert, and edited drafts of decriminalization bills presented in the state legislature.

She launched I-502 in September 2010.

The campaign required every strength Holcomb had in her: her smarts, which helped her pore over polling, strategize and consider every option; her heart, which helped keep her connected with the people who would be affected, as well as voters; and her tenacity.

“I am hard-wired to keep at it until it is done,” she said.

Holcomb crossed swords with her first boss, and members of Sensible Seattle, who filed its own initiative that would lift all state criminal laws relating to marijuana, but didn’t cover things like regulation and sales taxes.

But Holcomb persevered, and won the support of people like Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and former U.S. Attorney John McKay, who agreed to appear on the initiative’s website as one of its sponsors.

That’s a lot of men to deal with, on both sides — a point Holcomb recognized early on.

“Maybe women understand better that we have to work together, find synergy, work together with respect and caring,” she said. “I wonder if women maybe get that a little better.”

The campaign — and the passage of the law — was never about her, she said. That’s why she stood in the back of Cannabis City after the ceremonial ribbon-cutting, only to step forward when the first customer, a retiree named Deb Greene, called her over to thank her for getting the initiative passed.

“I didn’t need to have credit,” Holcomb said. “And that day, I didn’t want to stick my nose into a business that wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to give the impression that I had ownership.

“I think I’ve been so fortunate and had such a good life that I feel it’s my moral obligation to give back.”

With the campaign through and the stores opened and running, Holcomb has the time to indulge with a glass of cold rosé and a walk around her neighborhood.

But she hasn’t completely detached from political life, and is even considering running for city council in the 3rd district, which could pit her against Kshama Sawant.

And will she finally open the second bag she bought at Cannabis City the other week?

“I think I will,” she said, examining the label. “I have to try it. It sounds like it is going to be very pleasant.”

With that, Holcomb smiled her bright, toothy smile and sat back in her chair.

“Happy Birthday to me.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.



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