Steve Sarich. courtesy of 

Steve Sarich. courtesy of 

Marijuana legalization is on the ballot this year, and a debate over Initiative 502 drew a large crowd at the University of Washington last Wednesday, Oct. 10.

The debate turned out to be highly engaging due to the banter between the Rev. Leslie Braxton and medical-marijuana patient Steve Sarich, who each represented the extreme sides of the issue. At one point, Sarich even pulled out a marijuana plant and plopped it on the desk in front of him.

Sarich supports legalization but argued that I-502, which would legalize and tax sales of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, isn’t really legalization because marijuana will still be classified as a Schedule 1 (controlled substance) drug. He also noted the flaws of the new DUI provision for cannabis impairment that is included in I-502.

Braxton is vehemently opposed to drug use, but he believes the war on drugs is a form of institutionalized racism and that decriminalizing marijuana will create a more just society.


Drug impairment?

The DUI provision and its per se limit of 5 nanograms of active THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) per liter of blood was the topic discussed most. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who supports legalizing marijuana, said the per se limit was set because research suggests users will be impaired once they reach that level, and it is important that users do not drive when they are impaired.

“Over a certain amount of time, the active THC will dissipate in your bloodstream,” Holmes said. “The point is if it’s still at the level of 5 nanograms per liter of whole-blood, active THC, then the best available data says you are probably impaired.”

Sarich disagreed, stating that studies show drug impairment cannot be judged by blood content. He also argued that as a medical-marijuana patient he is rarely under the per se limit.

“I’ve had my blood tested, and I’m probably four to five times the legal limit right now,” Sarich said. “That will be every medical-marijuana patient.”

Pete Slack, commander of the Snohomish County Drug Task Force, also opposes legalization. He said he doesn’t think legalizing marijuana will eliminate the black market and that sellers will likely offer lower prices than what the state-regulated marijuana is sold for.

He is also concerned that I-502’s taxes, which could earn the state an estimated $560 million a year, would be so high they would make the black market stronger.

Holmes said he supports legalization because he wants to confront the federal ban on marijuana.

“Initiative 502 will send a clear message to the other Washington that we know better than to continue with the failed policy of marijuana prohibition,” Holmes said. “It’s a policy that has wasted taxpayer dollars and needlessly sacrificed the government’s law-enforcement credibility with the people. “


A ‘racist’ initiative?

Braxton’s support for legalization is solely based on stopping the war on drugs, which he said is actually a war on black and brown people. He stated that until Holmes stopped charging marijuana-possession cases, more than half of the marijuana prosecutions in Seattle were against blacks even though African Americans only make up 7 percent of the city’s population.

“If they as aggressively enforced marijuana laws on frat row here at the University of Washington or in Bellevue, by the time they got to MLK (Martin Luther King Jr. Way) or Rainier Avenue [South], the jails would be full,” Braxton said.

Braxton and Holmes tried to keep the conversation about the moral and monetary aspects of I-502, but most of the audience’s questions centered on how the initiative would affect medical users.

Braxton steered the debate back to the morality issue by closing with another impassioned statement about the criminal justice system.

“The war on drugs has not worked any better than Prohibition worked in the ‘20s,” Braxton said. “And what makes it even more sinister is we know it devastates certain groups of people more than others. For that not to matter to people is the worst form of racism.”