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Marijuana Legalization Debate at Palm Beach State College: An Out-of-the-Box Score

Last night's "Great Debate" at Palm Beach State College on marijuana legalization was informative, entertaining and, for the most part, fairly predictable. Who won? If audience reaction was any guide -- and the audience was by no means a crowd of freaks, more your typical American whitebread college-y and working class -- pass the dutchy.

Anti-drug activist Kevin Sabet, Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, put an amiable face on the new, Enlightened Prohibition, and suffered the crowd's catcalls with good grace. He's used to it, he said in his introduction, from his college days as the leader of "Students for a Drug-Free Berkeley." (When we were there it was "Free-Drugs Berkeley.")

Pro-pot rep Aaron Houston, until recently executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, made the case for the chronic, both medically ("remarkably effective for a remarkable number of conditions") and recreationally ("never killed anyone").

Moderated by Palm Beach Post editorial page editor Randy Schultz in a fashion alternately bemused and scolding (having to regularly quiet the natives), a major focus of the debate was Florida's medical marijuana referendum initiative, which has gathered enough support to qualify for review by the Florida Supreme Court.

Sabet claimed to support medical marijuana but called the current proposal too "wide-ranging" and "a smokescreen." He warned of replicating RxMaryJane as seen in California, with prescriptions handed out with abandon, citing as example "the charade and parade of Venice Beach."

Warning against dispensaries with "a three-hundred pound bouncer and a sign that says 'Cash Only,'" Sabet advocated a "standardized product" in pill form, with additives that block the user from getting a THC high. If pot advocates insist on smokable, euphoria-inducing medication, he said, "at least be honest."

Aaron Houston granted that Cali wasn't the greatest model. But he argued that the Florida proposal includes clear instructions for state regulation and that its guidelines to doctors for issuing prescriptions (including for any condition for which the patient will find the drug more beneficial than harmful) are simply "the standard of care" for all medications.

Houston inadvertently lent some ammo to Sabet's "smokescreen" argument. Countering Sabet's claim that medical marijuana had been known to result in "accidental poisoning" of children, Houston granted that kiddies might, in fact, partake in error if, for example, someone "brought some brownies to a party." Sabet pounced, wondering aloud how many other medications people typically "bring to parties."

Even in that case, though, Sabet overplayed his hand, saying of the case of two accidentally dosed, unnamed eight-year-olds, "we almost lost them." Um, according to the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies at NYU:

It is nearly impossible to overdose on marijuana as the toxic dose cannot be ingested or smoked in a short enough time period to make it lethal. Some people have attempted to inject THC via syringes, but the lethal dose has never been reached and this is an extremely rare usage of the drug.

Sabet's most interesting argument came down to this: fear of Big Weed. That is, that decriminalization will open the door to corporate America's takeover of da kine, "a new version of the tobacco industry."

There's "multimillion dollar equity holding companies waiting for legalization," Sabet warned, "it's not about free love and drum circles." Corporatized, legal marijuana, he said, will understand, as does Big Tobacco and Big Booze, that "they make most of their money" from a small cohort of abusers: "Their incentive is to increase addiction."

In a brief interview after the debate, Sabet told New Times he's opposed to "locking people up" for recreational pot. He said he favors therapeutic sanctions, court-ordered treatment for "abusers."

Never mind that such an approach sounds ominously like the old Soviet Union's habit of labeling dissidents as mentally unstable. The thing is that Sabet couldn't explain how treatment could be "mandatory" without the ultimate threat of incarceration. Suppose someone refuses treatment? Fine them, he said. And if they won't pay the fine? Only a "small fraction" would go that route, he said.

Count us in with Aaron Houston -- and with the more than 80% of the audience polled post-debate -- "We need to take this to the people. And the people have spoken."

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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