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Protests Continue in Egypt; Syrian Government Forces Reportedly Preparing Chemical Weapons Against Rebels; Marijuana Legalized for Personal Use in Washington State; Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Continue

Aired December 6, 2012 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning: clashes in Cairo. Tanks outside the palace there after a violent and deadly night. We'll tell you why people are protesting the new proposed constitution.

And we're monitoring the very latest for you in Syria as more evidence comes to light about Syria loading the precursors of deadly chemicals into bombs.

For the first time, recreational marijuana use for adults has been legalized in an American state. It's still a federal crime, though. So get ready for a big legal haze. Live reports on all this story straight ahead.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It's been a good year for stocks so far, Soledad, but what will 2013 bring, especially if we go over the fiscal cliff? What top economists are saying about your investments?

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": And is this what the fiscal cliff deal has come to? Why 81-year-old former senator Alan Simpson is going Gangnam Style to get everyone's attention on the debt.

O'BRIEN: It has officially jumped the shark. A packed two hours for you to talk about. Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana laws. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, director Heidi Ewing, and Rachel Grady will be joining us. Steve Sarich, he's the executive director of Cannabis Action Coalition. Ohio Congressman Steve Latourette, and Ambassador Nick Burns are our guests this morning.

It's Thursday, December 6th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning, some major developments to tell you about in Egypt after angry protests against political moves by the president, Mohamed Morsi, have turned deadly. Tanks, armored personnel vehicles, all stationed outside the presidential palace in Cairo. Not only are they guarding the palace, they're also keeping apart supporters and opponents of Morsi. Hundreds of his Islamist supporters already taking to the streets in Cairo this morning. Opponents are gathering not very far away. Last night the two sides clashed right outside the palace. The violence killed at least five people. Hundreds of other people were injured. Opponents are demanding that Morsi dial back on those sweeping powers that he has granted himself. CNN's Reza Sayah is live for us in Cairo this morning. What's the latest?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, we're getting the first signs that maybe, just maybe, cooler heads are prevailing and peace could be extraordinary in front of the presidential palace. Within the past 20 minutes, we've seen about a few thousand of President Morsi's supporters move away from the palace area and the crowd seems to be thinning out. We're getting reports that this was a call by the Revolutionary Guard, the military, for the crowds to withdraw, and it looks like it's happening. It's too early to tell if things are going to remain calm in the coming hours, but certainly this is a good sign.

Later in the day, President Morsi is scheduled to address the nation. We're not sure what he's going to say, but this is a president that's under tremendous pressure to calm things down and unite this country that at this point is divided.

Based on what the opposition is saying, based on what their position is, anything short of the president saying that he's going to annul this constitution, this draft constitution, and start the process over, anything short of that is not going to satisfy the opposition. Opposition leaders came out and made that demand yesterday.

In the meantime, opposition factions applying the pressure on the president. Last night, of course, you had these ugly clashes, more than 400 people injured in front of the palace, where you had literally a brawl between these two sides, the supporters of the president, the Muslim brotherhood, the Islamists, and on the other side, the opposition factions, the liberals, the moderates. In many ways, this is a fight for Egypt's identity. Both sides want their vision to be the future of Egypt and that's what this conflict is unfolding.

O'BRIEN: And these pictures are just remarkable, as you look at those tanks right from the presidential palace. Reza Sayah for us this morning. Thanks, Reza. Appreciate the update.

Our other developing story in the Middle East this morning, fears that Syria could unleash nerve gas and what could that mean for U.S. military involvement. NBC News is reporting that Syria's military has loaded the component chemicals for the deadly nerve gas Sarin into aerial bombs that could be dropped from fighter jets. CNN reported on Monday that Syrian forces started combining chemicals that could be used to make Sarin gas for weapons. Mohammed Jamjoom is in Beirut. He's got more on the story for us this morning. Good morning.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. This latest report only increasing concerns about the intentions of the Syrian regime when it comes to their chemical weapon stockpile. Now, why are there so many concerns? Not just because people are worried what Bashar al Assad might do with these chemical weapon stockpiles, as there have been for months, but more as rebels are advancing on Damascus and the battling are getting more heated and pitched around the capital, there are concerns that if Damascus were to fall, what would happen to chemical weapon stockpiles? Could they get into the hands of groups that are fighting with Syrian rebels?

A big concern, and we've heard more calls from the U.S. administration, warning that Bashar al Assad if we were to utilize chemical weapons against the population of Syria, that would be a clear red line, they would face consequences. We must add one more thing, that the Syrian regime has repeatedly said, including today, they have no intention of utilizing chemical weapons against Syrian.

O'BRIEN: Mohammed Jamjoom for us this morning, thanks for the update.

Let's turn right to Zoraida Sambolin. She's got a look at the rest of the day's top stories. Hey, Z.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you.

Breaking the ice, President Obama and House Speaker John Byron finally discussing the fiscal cliff. They talked by telephone yesterday. With just 26 days remaining to get a deal done, there are signs of compromise on the Republican side. Oklahoma's Republican Senator Tom Coburn, a leading conservative. saying he is OK with raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans. In a few moments, Soledad O'Brien will talk with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. He sits on the budget committee.

A homeless man Naeem Davis now charged with murder for allegedly pushing a man off a New York City subway platform. Davis was arraigned last night on a second-degree murder charge. Police say he pushed 50-year-old Ki-suk Han on to the tracks and into the path of an oncoming subway train.

Internet security pioneer John McAfee could be deported to Belize as early as today. Guatemalan officials detained McAfee yesterday. They accuse him of entering their country illegally. He turned up in Guatemala on Tuesday after disappearing from his home in Belize. Police there want to question McAfee in connection with a murder, his neighbor's murder. He says he is innocent but that he went into hiding because he feared persecution by police in Belize.

The duchess of Cambridge has been discharged from a London hospital. She is nearly three months pregnant and was being treated for acute morning sickness. She was smiling when she left the hospital this morning with Prince William by her side. Kate is headed to Kensington for a short period of time of rest. She looks good.

O'BRIEN: She does.

SAMBOLIN: And some familiar faces leading the field for the 55th annual Grammy Awards. Kanye West and Jay-Z each received six nominations. One of the newcomers, the Indy pop band Fun also got three nominations, including one for best artist.

O'BRIEN: My kids will be so excited. They love Fun. I've never heard of them before, but they love Fun. Zoraida, thank.

Kind of a big old pot party in Washington state now. Take a look at.


CROWD: Two, one!


O'BRIEN: That's because at midnight, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal uses is legal thanks to a landmark ballot initiative that passed last month and took effect at midnight. To celebrate, pot smokers have been lighting up in the shadow of Seattle's iconic space needle. CNN's Miguel Marquez is in Seattle for us this morning. Good morning.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning there. This was only one of many parties across the state with people just taking the first step as this new law is implemented.


MARQUEZ: The moment recreational pot, anything less than an ounce, no longer illegal in Washington state.

JEREMY GEORGE, MARIJUANA LAW SUPPORTER: It's amazing. I'm not a criminal anymore. I can't go to jail for small amounts of marijuana. You know, it's -- I'm free to be free.

MARQUEZ: Several dozen hard-core smokers showed up here to the base of the space needle, the symbol of the city and of the state to light up at the stroke of midnight. While the new law does not allowed smoking in public places, Seattle police and police departments across the state are turning a blind eye tonight, allowing celebrations to light up.

This is what you'd assume the stores will look like or something along these lines?

JAMEN SHIVELY, MARIJUANA ENTREPRENEUR: So, yes, our stores are going to have the feel of a fine cigar shop.

MARQUEZ: Jamen Shively, once a high-profile executive at Microsoft, now preparing to open as many as two dozen high-end marijuana shops in Washington and Colorado. And yesterday he'd be called a drug dealer, today, an entrepreneur.

SHIVELY: Our target market is actually baby boomers. So these are folks who may be tried it in college a couple times, maybe they didn't inhale, but now it's actually safe to inhale.

MARQUEZ: He's already working on packaging and attractive displays for future clients. The state liquor control board has a year to regulate and license the growing, processing, and retailing of marijuana here, all of it taxable at a very high 25 percent.

ALISON HOLCOMB, INTIATIVE 502 DIRECTOR: We're looking at the potential of bringing in more than $500 million each year in new tax revenue. MARQUEZ: The big question still, what will the federal government do? Pot still illegal federally, today, a legal toke of revolution burning here and soon Colorado.


MARQUEZ: Now, Colorado's law, almost the exact same, will get going by January 5th. And the federal government has only said so far that they are reviewing both states' programs and they remind them that federally, at least, it is still illegal to possess marijuana. Back to you.

O'BRIEN: Miguel Marquez for us this morning, thanks, Miguel.

So let's get right to Allen St. Pierre. He's in Washington, D.C., the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which has been fighting for the legalization of marijuana since they were founded back in 1972. It's nice to have you with us. You heard Miguel's report. There are strict rules, it's going to be heavily taxed, still considered to be illegal by the feds. What's your reaction to what happened at the stroke of midnight?

ALLEN ST. PIERRE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR THE REFORM OF MARIJUANA LAWS: Well, that's a celebration to be sure. That's pent-up 75 years of marijuana prohibition in America, even though the law technically doesn't allow for public use. Let's acknowledge it was just a public celebration.

O'BRIEN: So if you think that this is the end of prohibition, we're looking at just two states, do you think that this is kicking off what could be a national trend? And if, yes, is that in the next year, two years, 10 years?

ST. PIERRE: Indeed. Look at decrim. When marijuana was decriminalized in 1973, ten more years 10 more states decriminalized it. In 1996, when Californians voted for medical marijuana, ten years later, we now have 18 states that have medical marijuana. And I think it passes prologue, the same thing will happen with legalization. Almost the entire west coast and all of New England is going to move in this direction. It will take decades to infill the middle of the country.

O'BRIEN: So what does it look like? Walk me through. Because I think for a lot of people who have concerns, they're worried about what it tangibly looks like on the streets and in the communities. It's going to bring in potentially millions of dollars for the state, because of high taxation. Will it also change tourism too?

ST. PIERRE: To be sure. Why go to Amsterdam? Why go to Jamaica? I love trout fishing and skiing, so I think I'll be making more trips this year to Colorado and Washington, and I expect a few hundred thousand other people will be doing the same. Particularly once the laws kick in in a year, when an adult can go, just like to a restaurant, to a bar, to a liquor store, whether it's a private license or whether the state controls it, and purchase the product and use it responsibly. O'BRIEN: Alan St. Pierre, joining us this morning. He's the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Nice to have you with us. Thank you.

Coming up next hour, we'll hear from Steve Sarich. He's the executive director of the Cannabis Action Coalition. He's trying to overturn that new law. We'll tell you why, straight ahead.

Also ahead on STARTING POINT, President Obama and Speaker Boehner talk on the phone about the fiscal cliff. But will they be meeting face- to-face and will they get anything done before it's too late? Up next, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, he's a member of the budget committee.

And Kobe Bryant joins an elite club with basketball greats like Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His impressive feat, we'll tell you all about it.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans. Minding your business this morning, markets in a holding pattern as fiscal cliff talks continue in Washington. But the S&P 500 is up 12 percent so far this year. And a 20-year veteran investment strategy at Goldman Sachs, Abby Joseph Cohen, she estimates stocks could rise another 10 percent to 15 percent next year. She says the fundamentals of the U.S. are solid despite the fiscal cliff concerns coming out of Washington. She says stocks could get hit in the early part of the area if we go over the fiscal cliff, but the fundamentals of the economy are still good.

All right, Apple stock dropped more than six percent yesterday. Shares were down about half a percent in pre-market trading this morning. No concrete news pushing them down, but today there's another hearing in the patent case with Samsung in California, and a tech research report generated a lot of buzz that Apple's tablet competitors could eat into its market share.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. Thanks, Christine.

Well, the good news is, let's do the fiscal cliff and the good news. And it's not very much. But at least the two sides are talking, by phone. Not face to face. House Speaker John Boehner and the president are hoping to break the fiscal cliff ice. Now we're just mixing metaphors, left and right. Speaking on the phone, 26 days left, of course, until we tumble over the cliff or slide down the slope or fall of the precipice or however you want to put it. We could, of course, face massive tax hikes, spending cuts. That's what the fiscal cliff is all about. It would all start with the start of the new year.

I want to get to Senator Jeff Merkley. He's a Democrat from the state of Oregon. He's on both the budget committee and the banking, housing, and urban affairs committee. Nice to have you with us, sir. Thanks for joining us.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY, (D) OREGON: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Before we get to fiscal cliff, let's talk a little bit about Syria. There are now reports that they may be loading the components that would make up Sarin gas. And I'm curious to know and I think a lot of people are watching this, does this mean that we are headed, the United States is headed into military action considering what we know about the red line, if you will, that Hillary Clinton laid out pretty clearly?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY, (D) OREGON: It was very important for her to draw a very clear line, because any use of chemical weapons has to be responded to internationally. I'm sure the secretary of state is immersed with Russia right now, is in negotiations with Russia for a united front against this absolutely unacceptable possibility.

O'BRIEN: OK, so she's laid that out. But then the next step, of course, if, in fact, they're putting together the components that create Sarin gas and they're leading these into weapons, are we going to war insider to stop this, the United States?

MERKLEY: I think that the U.S. is going to be laying out a series of actions in partnership with some other states that will be taken should they use these chemical weapons. And it is my hope and I think the hope of everyone on this planet that a fierce and united international response will ensure that Syria does not actually consider using these weapons.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the fiscal cliff. We now know, and it's kind of a slow news day on that front, right. The news we're reporting, the speaker and the president spoke by phone and nothing came out of it. And that's the headline. We know that -- we've been talking about the fiscal cliff, in nearly a month, we'll get over it. But really it's nine days, because everybody is supposed to break in just nine days.

Do you think everybody in Congress fully understands just how frustrated and annoyed the American public is on this, seeing everybody go off, you know, to their home states for the weekend while this looms for the rest of us?

MERKLEY: Well, certainly when I was home in Oregon I heard about it from everyone and every meeting. There is an expectation that we come together with these big national issues and address them. Right now, what we have is a very unspecified proposal from the Republicans, just basically saying we'll find revenues somewhere, we'll find cuts programs somewhere. Meanwhile, we'll be very specific about cutting Medicare and Social Security.

That's an extremely unacceptable response to the president's initial proposal. And, quite frankly, it's not acceptable that this game of chicken continue right on down the road. The needs will be very specific in negotiations. If they need to keep them very private and contained for a while, to get the details, so be it, but action is required.

O'BRIEN: The game of chicken is being on played both sides, isn't it? The president's side and the Republican's as well?

MERKLEY: The president has laid out a very clear proposal, consistent with his campaign, that it's time to end the bonus breaks for the best off. Recognize that if you're very wealthy in America, you would get all the breaks that anyone would get up to $250,000.

O'BRIEN: I get it, the taxes thing is a sticking point, but the spending is also a problem, and both sides are playing chicken. Democrats are not so willing to cut spending and Republicans say they're not going to raise taxes for anybody. That's a sticking point with nine days to go.

MERKLEY: So certainly those who are advocating as the president did during his campaign that we need to return the Bush rates, he's laid out a very specific proposal. The Republicans are arguing for cuts. They need to lay out a very specific proposal on that regard.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, we'll continue to watch it. Kind of a bummer of news, a phone call that's nothing come out of it is our big headline out of it. Senator Jeff Merkley joining us from the state of Oregon, thank you, sir for your time, appreciate it.

MERKLEY: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, when you can't get Washington to reach a deal on the cliff, why not go "Gangnam Style?" That would be, yes, the man on your left is 81-year-old former senator Alan Simpson. He's got a hysterical new video, but he's got kind of a serious point with it. We'll talk about that and much more with our STARTING POINT team. They're heading in. We're back in just a moment.



ALAN SIMPSON, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Stop instagraming your breakfast and tweeting your first world problems and getting on YouTube so you can see "Gangnam Style."



O'BRIEN: That would be 81-year-old former senator Alan Simpson going "Gangnam Style." He's serious, though, trying to get young people to understand what the looming fiscal cliff is all about. That little ad, he was hired by this organization of young people, who are concerned about the fiscal cliff, is hilarious. It is the funniest thing.

ABBY HUNTSMAN, DAUGHTER OF JON HUNTSMAN: His legs are the best part. He's getting really into it.

SAMBOLIN: I think it's brilliant also, though, because it is very effective. Everybody's watching, everybody's talking about it. Highly effective.

O'BRIEN: Everybody's re-tweeting that thing. And a dancing can next to him. What could be better than that?

Our team this morning, Jim Fricke is international editor of "TIME" magazine, Abby Huntsman is the host of "Huffpost Live," and also the daughter of Jon huntsman. Roland Martin will join us in a moment, he's the host of "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

What's interesting about the fiscal cliff thing, we haven't spoken about young people. We're really just focused on the elect officials who seem to be doing a lot of nothing.

HUNTSMAN: Morale is so low for my generation. Because they feel like no matter what, nothing is going to get done. And they speak in a language that they don't understand. I do it for a job, so I know about it, but my friends feel like they have no idea what's going on.

JIM FREDERICK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And this cynicism is really strong because I think they feel, you know, 27 days to go and they just assume nothing is going to happen for the next three weeks. And they look at the countdown clocks on television news networks like this one and say, oh, well, nothing's going to happen until we go over the cliff. I don't have tune in or worry about it.

O'BRIEN: I wonder if that dancing 84-year-old senator is a way to break through.

HUNTSMAN: I hope so, because at the end of the day we're the ones who will be the most affected by it. We're getting the $16 trillion deficit passed down to us.

SAMBOLIN: Do you think young people get that, though? Do you think they understand the long-term consequences?

HUNTSMAN: Not like they should.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, they're an army of one, but does it apply if you are not particularly religious? We'll tell you why one cadet quit the west point military academy just months before he was supposed to graduate because he says he's not religious.

Also, more bad PR for Penn State. Look at these lovely sorority girls. Yes, they are dressed lake Mexicans with mustaches holding signs that, "Will mow lawn for beer," things like that. How clever. We'll talk about that photo straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Morning. Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. In just a few moments, we'll be talking to an outgoing west point cadet. His name is Lieutenant Blake Page. He's dropping out, leaving just months before he would graduate because he says he's being discriminated against because he's non-religious.