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Capitol scuffle: I-502 protesters shout at Rick Steves

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Oct. 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
October 12, 2012 4:17 pm

International travel guide Rick Steves set out to make a few remarks today in favor of Initiative 502’s proposed legalization of marijuana. But about 20 noisy protesters including medical-marijuana advocates disrupted his speech in the state Capitol Rotunda.

The Washington State Patrol escorted about “four or five” protesters outside the building after things got tense between the two sides on the hotly contested ballot issue, Capt. Travis Matheson said later. Matheson said it was one thing to hold up signs against I-502 or to “engage in dialogue,” but the pro-502 forces had a permit and a right to hold their event, which drew about 60 people on both sides of the issue.

Standing in the Rotunda after rained scuttled an outdoor rally plan, Steves tried to explain his position in favor of I-502. For the most part, his comments were drowned out by the shouting in the stone-walled building that is known for crazy echoes.

One protester, Steve Mohr, told me he runs a medical-marijuana dispensary in Olympia.

“This is just a bad bill. Most people haven’t read it,” Mohr said, complaining that intoxication standards for driving while under the influence of marijuana are set without a valid scientific basis. “I’m not here for any reason but to tell people this will harm them.’’

Asked about why he and others needed to interrupt the other side’s speakers, Mohr said he got “carried away in the moment.”

It appeared that state Rep. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat who supports I-502, got into a scuffle with an anti-502 protester. Mohr accused Hunt of choking an anti-502 activist, but the lawmaker said he only shoved a man that had slammed him with an elbow as he stood behind Steves.

“I’ve never been assaulted at a demonstration before,” Hunt said. “He came in and hit me with an elbow and tried to shove me out of the way. I pushed him back.’’

Hunt said he backs I-502 because some police enforce laws against possessing or using marijuana while other police “look the other way.” “It’s time to address it with something that works. This is the first step. Nothing is perfect,” he said.

A few law enforcement figures back the reform proposal on grounds police resources can be used better to fight other crimes. A new report issued Thursday by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project in New York found 240,000 arrests in Washington for marijuana possession over the past 25 years and it noted minorities are arrested more often than whites.

Steves’ comments were hard to hear over the chanting and shouting, although I could faintly make out his drawing of a parallel to the failed national prohibition on alcohol that ended during the Great Depression.

Steves said later to reporters he believes marijuana is “a civil liberty issue,” which the I-502 sponsors (American Civil Liberties Union) clearly also believe.

“That’s what’s in it for me. I want a society that doesn’t have a wrong-minded prohibition based on reefer madness propaganda and a bunch of lies …” Steves said. “Forty-thousand people have died south of our border you could say to a great extent because marijuana is illegal in the United States. I care about that.”

He also called the U.S. policy embarrassing to an America. But he said the campaign, to which he’s donated $450,000 personally or through his travel business, is making headway.

“It’s not an easy task. But we’re getting some common sense with our drug policy here. If you are the strongest person against drug abuse five years from now you will look back and say ‘thank you for bringing some sanity to our laws on drugs,’’ Steves said.

Both candidates for governor both oppose the measure because of the conflict it will set up with the federal government, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked the federal government to reclassify marijuana to allow doctors to prescribe it.

But Steves said, “Our country is designed for states to be the incubators of change. That’s how it’s designed. The federal government doesn’t like it but the federal government gets it wrong sometimes. And one by one the states will call attention to that. Of course, the federal government will say, ‘hey you can’t do that.’ But that is how Prohibition against alcohol (ended), one state at a time. And it’s done incrementally.’’

Some in the crowd opposed to I-502 shouted out criticisms of the presumed levels of intoxication for motorists that are written into the proposal. And one man shouted against “out of state money.’’

Indeed, data on file at the state Public Disclosure Commission shows that Peter Lewis of Ohio donated more than $1.7 million of I-502’s $4.86 million raised so far, and the Drug Policy Action reform group in New York gave $1.15 million more. Steves is the largest in-state donor.

Opponents have raised just $6,828 – topped by $1,800 from Arthur West and $1,350 from Eddie Agazarm, both of Olympia. No on 502 campaign manager Steve Sarich gave $285 more. West was among those standing in a balcony while No on 502 protesters shouted and waved red signs that were outnumbered by the blue signs of I-502 supporters.

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