Alabama Marijuana Debate: Heads vs. Feds Recap

On Thursday March 4, 2010 a group of patients from Alabamians for Compassionate Care took a trip to Mobile, Alabama to attend the Heads vs. Feds debate between long time High Times Editor Steve Hager and retired DEA agent Robert Stutman which took place at the University of South Alabama. For those of you unfamiliar with this production it’s basically a cannabis consumer and advocate for legalization debating a DEA agent and also has audience participation. It was the first one I have attended, although it has been to Alabama before. I figured it would be dynamite and I was not disappointed.

Representing for Alabamians for Compassionate Care were yours truly, Christie O’Brien, Chris and DJ Butts, Sam Barksdale, Phillip Nettles and my son Alex Nall (who is a supporter but not a consumer). We arrived early and got front row seats. I had inquired the day before how many people were expected to attend and the lady at Jaguar Productions told me that the student ballroom had been set up to seat 150. Chris Butts printed out 250 Compassionate Care flyers…just to be safe… and Alex voluntarily stationed himself outside the entrance and made sure everyone who came through the door got a flyer. However, there wound up being about 400 people who attended the event so we ran out fairly quickly. I was joyously surprised to see that much interest in the topic of marijuana legalization. Judging from the response throughout the debate a good 99% of attendees want marijuana legalized. There is some very real momentum in the great state of Alabama right now!

Phillip had brought a video camera and tri-pod to film the event but we were told that only NORML would be allowed to film. Not sure whose rule that was, but they were serious about it. A local TV news crew showed up and was not allowed to film either. However, it provided a very good opportunity for me to demonstrate to the ACC members how to bum rush the media and get them the information that they need to cover this issue in Alabama. As soon as I realized the media would not be allowed to film I grabbed Sam Barksdale, who is a Mobile resident, patient, and the Alabama Compassionate Care coordinator for South Alabama, and took him over to meet the reporter. I introduced them, gave the reporter one of our flyers (they were incredible BTW THANKS CHRIS!), told her about the bill and that we expected it to come up in committee on either the 24th or 31st of March. I then presented Sam to her as a local patient to interview. I’m pretty sure Sam will be getting a call as we get closer to time for the bill to drop.

However, all chance for video was not lost. A few of our members used their digital cameras and cell phones to record as much of the event as possible. And, one of our members, Sam Barksdale was chosen by Steve Hager to film with his personal video camera.

About ten minutes before the event started Steve Hager and Robert Stutman arrived. I introduced myself to Steve who said he knew me and he inquired about the latest with Marc Emery. At one time Cannabis Culture and High Times were rivals and not always on the best of terms. However, we all support Marc Emery and completely disagree with how he is being treated by both the American and Canadian governments. Steve asked for my card and said he would introduce me to the audience during the debate. He then asked Sam Barksdale to film the event with his personal video camera, which was a very neat thing for him to do. Sam was very excited.

The debate began with a short film giving the backgrounds of Hager and Stutman. Hager was presented as the hippie and Stutman as the hard charging government agent, who is obviously opposed to anything hippie. My only real critique with the whole event is the portrayal of cannabis consumers as ‘hippies’….even if some of us are. I realize and respect that Steve Hager is of the 60’s generation (I often wish I was) and mean no disrespect by my critique. It’s just that people who consume cannabis are a very diverse bunch. Yet, when this issue comes up in politics or in public we are all forced to fight the damn culture war instead of focusing on the drug war. Not everyone who consumes cannabis dresses in tie-dye, wears Jesus sandals, and burns patchouli incense. That being said, the film was giving backgrounds on the participants and that is Steve Hager’s background and it was interesting.

After the film the debate began with the moderator laying out the rules and informing the audience that they could participate by asking questions at the end. However, she said, there would be no discussion or back and forth on the questions. Basically, it was ask your question and sit down.

Steve and Robert each started out by saying that they are actually friends, respect each other, and have been doing this show for ten years. They each asked that the audience be respectful and not boo either party.

Steve started by giving the history of marijuana, talking about its numerous medicinal qualities, about why it is illegal (racist policy, big pharma etc), industrial hemp, prisons etc. Here is a video of part of his opening statement. You must have a facebook account to view it. Hopefully it will be on YouTube shortly. Steve Hager opening statements video.

Robert Stutman opened by telling the audience about his life as a DEA agent, about how he had a close friend and fellow agent killed by the mob over drugs and how that affected him. He also told the audience that he did not think prison was the place for drug users, that he preferred forced treatment instead. I felt like that was an attempt to counter any hard questions from the audience before we even had a chance to ask them…a sort of “I’m really on your side, so don’t be too hard on me” kind of thing. He countered Steve Hager’s opening remarks by saying that Steve wasn’t telling everyone the truth.

In response to Steve’s argument about marijuana being kept illegal (by big pharma) because it can be grown by anyone and is free medicine Stutman said, “Well penicillin can be grown by anyone too for free and it hasn’t been outlawed and there aren’t millions of people growing it for free medicine.”

Not kidding. That is what he said. Despite the glaring reasons why growing penicillin at home and using it as medicine are impractical to the point of impossibility. With marijuana all you have to do is dry the plant and smoke it, cook with it etc…The audience didn’t buy it for a second.

In response to the medicinal qualities it was the same ol’ same ol’ one would expect from a government official who has made his living off the drug war. Stutman asserted that; “Marijuana has no medicinal value, there is no research that proves anything, there is Marinol for sick people, that only two chemicals found in marijuana have ever been proven to have any medical value, it’s a gateway drug, that it leads to schizophrenia and there was an article coming out in the New York Times the next day about that very thing.”

Of course, what he didn’t say is that the same study comes out of Australia every year, that no one with any credibility in the medical community will say they know what causes schizophrenia or that schizophrenia symptoms usually present right after the onset of puberty or in the early 20’s and that those are the age groups used for this study.

In response to Hager’s assertion that industrial hemp could really help save the environment, produce jobs, and be a boon to the economy Stutman replied; “What Steve didn’t tell you is that Canada legalized industrial hemp a few years ago. In the beginning there were (over 300 I think he said) farmers growing it and now there are only 6. He also said if hemp was such great stuff then why, in countries where it is legal, isn’t everyone wearing it?

The back and forth went on for about 15 minutes. I can’t remember the whole thing verbatim so here are 8 video clips from the event HERE.

Finally, my favorite part of the program arrived….Q & A. As soon as the moderator said GO I was out of my chair and at the mic. I had decided to ask the DEA agent a question often posed by my friend and fellow reformer Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network. Here is the video of me asking the question and the unbelievable non-response given by Stutman.

Name one Drug War objective that has ever been met.

As you can see, Mr. Stutman was unable to answer the question so he got on his bike and rode it round and round the room. When they do that you know you have won. Since we were not able to ask follow up questions or discuss the issue further I was not able to counter his claim that the Drug War isn’t actually a war. Had I been able to I would have asked him how he defined war. In my definition of war armed paramilitary SWAT teams riding in armored personnel carriers, kicking in doors at 3 a.m., using flash bang grenades and summarily extra-judicially executing non-violent drug offenders or cramming them in POW camps (US prisons) IS WAR. Except, in this war, the ‘enemy’ (American citizens) aren’t allowed to fight back or defend themselves.

I would have also asked him that if 45% fewer American’s smoked marijuana now than in the 70’s how come arrests for marijuana are at an all time high with over 800,000 being arrested last year and 90% of those for simple possession for personal use.

At that time I had to leave and get my son back on his campus before 9 p.m. so I missed whatever other questions were asked. I do know that Chris Butts asked Steve to tell the audience why there is such a dismal amount of medical research in the US and who was blocking it. When I arrived back the event was still going on so I returned to my seat to finish it out. During the closing remarks Steve introduced me to the audience, which I greatly appreciated. Here is that video clip.

Steve Hager introduces Loretta Nall to crowd

After that introduction and as soon as the event concluded literally hundreds of students packed our part of the room asking how they could get involved with ACC and drug policy reform in Alabama in general. Around 200 signed up and three different young ladies volunteered to head up an ACC chapter on campus. I am also going to get them started with an SSDP chapter and a NORML chapter.

I only saw 6 or 8 people lined up to talk to the DEA agent.

Our crew went over and talked to Steve for a little bit and had some photos taken with him. There are other pics out there and I will track them down later.

I had a chance to speak to the moderator of the event afterward. She thanked me for kicking the Q&A off. She is a communications professor and has done work with some anti-drug groups. I told her that I would have very much enjoyed being allowed to counter the DEA agents claims and to have had more of a discussion with him. She agreed and said that the next time they present the program they will have me on a panel along with some other members of the audience and perhaps a local policeman. We exchanged info. I am looking forward to her call.

All in all the event was worth spending 10 hours in a car to get there and back. If you have a chance to attend a Heads vs. Feds event I strongly recommend that you do so.


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