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'It Was Almost a Brawl:' Marijuana Panel Descends Into Fighting and Yelling

State Representative Walt Blackman, left, raised concerns about legalizing marijuana at a panel in Phoenix on Saturday.EXPAND
State Representative Walt Blackman, left, raised concerns about legalizing marijuana at a panel in Phoenix on Saturday.
Ali Swenson

The “To Legalize or Not?” panel at Phoenix’s Juniper Library on October 5 was billed as a chance for the public to learn more about the initiative being circulated to legalize marijuana in Arizona in 2020.

Instead, attendees learned just how intense the state’s debate around marijuana is due to become in the next year.

“I am talking, so that means that you are a radio, and you are receiving right now,” Republican State Representative Walt Blackman said to Zed Therapeutics Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ed Westerfield at one of the most heated points of the panel discussion.

At a different point, Blackman heckled Westerfield as the doctor stood in front of the crowd to argue cannabis isn’t a gateway drug.

Panelists at the 90-minute event organized by the Phoenix Cannabis Coalition included Blackman, Westerfield, Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce board member Mason Cave, and former Arizona Libertarian Party chair Michael Kielsky.

Missing from the panel was a representative from the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, the proposed initiative and campaign now gathering signatures to put legalization on the 2020 ballot.

Moderator Michael Infanzon prompted panelists to explain their concerns with the initiative.

Kielsky leaned on libertarian talking points, arguing the proposed legislation is too long and represents overly heavy government oversight. Blackman, meanwhile, who's skeptical of the benefits of legalization and of marijuana in general, said he wants the government to be involved.

Westerfield tried to correct misconceptions by explaining how the drug helped patients, while Cave, all business, stuck to the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce’s party line that the initiative offers too few new dispensary licenses — and that his organization will write a better one.

As panelists started sharing their opinions, the apparent intention to educate the audience about marijuana and the Smart and Safe Arizona Act gave way to chaos and misinformation. Instead of focusing on the details of the current initiative to legalize marijuana, the conversation devolved into fights over whether or not the drug should be legal in general.

Blackman raised concerns about America’s “addictive society” and argued that legalizing marijuana would increase health care costs related to addiction. He also repeatedly referred to cannabis and marijuana separately, until Westerfield corrected him.

“Well, I don’t smoke it,” Blackman responded. “So I don’t know.”

Panelists yelled over each other and audience members about whether or not marijuana impairs drivers, whether it’s a gateway drug, and whether it’s addictive, and how legalization would affect expungement of past marijuana-related crimes.

Cannabis lawyer Tom Dean stood up from his seat to explain an argument around marijuana-related DUI arrests, only to be shooed offstage by the moderator.

“You’re a guest and you need to act like one, so stop right now,” Michelle Westenfield, director of the Phoenix Cannabis Coalition, told Dean during the panel.

Infanzon, the moderator, twice dodged questions about why nobody who helped draft the initiative was invited to sit on the panel, despite the initiative being the overwhelming theme of the event.

“I invited a legislator, I invited two people who were in the cannabis industry, and I invited a libertarian,” he said.

Responding to the same question, Michelle Westenfield said, “I didn’t feel the need to have them here. I wanted new faces, new eyes, new opinions.”

The group did invite to the panel Demitri Downing, founder of Arizona’s chapter of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association, which has publicly advocated for the initiative so far. But Downing declined, citing bad timing and different priorities.

“Until there’s another viable initiative, there’s nothing really to talk about,” Downing said. “It’s not productive.”

Multiple guests and panelists agreed the meeting didn’t achieve its goal to educate.

“I don’t know if we heard anything really that we didn’t already know,” Dean said. He said he wished the panel would have discussed the initiative in more detail, instead of rehashing whether or not legalization was good for society.

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Panelist Ed Westerfield called it “mind-boggling” that he had to explain to Blackman that marijuana and cannabis were the same thing.

But Michelle Westenfield tried to put a positive spin on the day’s chaos.

“It was almost a brawl,” she said. “It almost turned into [WWE]. I love it.”

The entire panel is available to watch on Facebook Live.

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