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Originally published Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 9:42 PM

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Lively debate over I-502, the marijuana measure, draws big crowd at the UW

A well-attended debate over Initiative 502, which would legalize and tax sales of up to 1 ounce of marijuana in Washington state, proved both lively and good theater Wednesday night at the University of Washington.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Marijuana legalization is on the ballot this presidential election year because that's when younger voters turn out, and younger voters tend to like marijuana.

Those facts brought the debate over Initiative 502 to a packed hall at University of Washington on Wednesday. It was a debate theater and law students could enjoy; at one point, a marijuana advocate plopped a marijuana plant in front of drug cop, who buried his head in his hands.

After months of similar forums, the hottest debate continues to center on a new DUI provision for cannabis impairment contained in I-502, rather than about the wisdom or legality of the state licensing marijuana stores and grow farms.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes told the crowd Wednesday that he supports I-502, which would legalize and tax sales of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, because he wants to confront the federal ban on marijuana.

"The misguided war on drugs has failed every legitimate public-safety goal. It has turned this land of the free into the No. 1 jailer nation in the world and made criminal cartels fabulously rich," Holmes said.

Fellow supporter Leslie David Braxton, a Baptist minister, called it a weapon of "institutional racism." Although his fellow African Americans make up 7 percent of Seattle's population, more than half of the marijuana prosecutions in the city were against blacks until Holmes was elected and stopped charging marijuana-possession cases, he said.

"The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people," said Braxton, of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship in South King County.

Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish County Drug Task Force, emphasized the uncertainties of I-502, including whether its taxes, which by some estimates would garner the state $560 million a year, would be so high they would feed a black market.

Medical-marijuana entrepreneur Steve Sarich also took the con role, declaring that a DUI provision in I-502, which sets a zero tolerance for THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) for people under 21, would ensnare college students.

"There goes your Pell Grant; there goes your college," Sarich warned.

Moderator Steve Scher of KUOW described Sarich as posing "a doomsday" scenario, and Holmes agreed. Holmes, who oversees DUI prosecutions in Seattle, said I-502 does not alter the fact that police must have probable cause to stop and arrest.

The DUI provision is essential if Washington is to be the first state to legalize recreational marijuana sales, Holmes said. "Folks, it doesn't matter if it doesn't pass."

The debate was full of contrary moments. Braxton said he "hated" marijuana but will vote for legalization. Slack wondered what black-market drug dealers would move to next if put out of business by I-502. And although Sarich advocated for legalization, he doesn't back I-502, the first such measure to make a statewide ballot.

Braxton and Scher tried to steer the debate back to the social-justice implications for I-502. But a parade of hostile questions from audience members, many wearing "No on 502" shirts or buttons, steered it back toward the effect on medical-marijuana patients, who could be vulnerable to DUI arrests.

Sarich pulled a marijuana seedling from under the table and plopped it next to Slack, who buried his head. "That will be illegal in a year from now," declared Sarich, although Holmes vigorously disputed that statement.

Braxton shook his head. "He's not black. They ain't gonna arrest him," said Braxton of Sarich.

Braxton closed the debate, sponsored by Seattle's CityClub and the UW Debate Club, with an impassioned appeal to approve I-502 and to end the drug war's heavy toll on African Americans.

"For that not to matter to people is the worst form of racism. It's because of those laws that this audience" — a mostly white crowd at the state's elite university — "is not more diverse."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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