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Fear that Syria May Use Nerve Gas; High Times in Washington State; Interview With Rep. Steve LaTourette

Aired December 6, 2012 - 08:00   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT this morning: Syria getting even more dangerous there. There are new reports that say President Assad's government putting chemical weapon components into bombs. What does that mean for potential U.S. action? We'll have a live report from overseas straight ahead.

And they're lighting up in Washington state. No, not the Christmas tree -- literally lighting up. It's the first time ever in the United States that the recreational use of pot has been legalized. The feds still say it's illegal. So, is this law cut and dry?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It's been a good year for stocks, Soledad. But if we go over the fiscal cliff, what could happen to the markets in 2013? That's just ahead.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": And Grammy nominations are out. Find out who is in the running to take home the music industry's top honors?

O'BRIEN: Lots to talk about this morning.

We're going to talk to Steve Sarich. He's director of Cannabis Action Coalition. He says ditch the law. Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette is with us. And Ambassador Nick Burns will join us.

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


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

We've got lots to talk about this morning. We're talking about Syria and fears that they could unleash a nerve gas and what that could eventually mean for any kind of potential military involvement in the war there.

NBC News is reporting that Syria's military has loaded the component chemicals from the deadly nerve gas sarin into aerial bombs that could be dropped from fighter jets. CNN has not confirmed that report yet. But on Monday, we reported that Syrian forces started combining chemicals that could be used to make sarin gas for weapons.

Let's get right to CNN's Barbara Starr. She's got the very latest from Pentagon for us.

Barbara, good morning.


Well, the Pentagon is declining all comment on that NBC report. But look, that doesn't mean that things aren't going on behind the scenes, of course, because if this begins to become true, then everybody is turning to the question of President Obama's red line. He said there'd be consequences.

Officials are telling us the consequences are if they see the intent by the Syrians, of course, to use the weapons, what does that mean? That means the military has to start providing the president with options. He might decide on the diplomatic route, but he's got to have options for military action. That's what the Pentagon does.

Very tough to do, Soledad. You have to know exactly where these weapons are, how you would target them, what kind of plane you might use or missile to get in there. Can you get past Syrian air defenses? Are you sure that there are no civilians around? All of these very complicated questions.

And you can bet nobody is looking for military action on this. All the efforts right now are to -- possibly through the Russians are to try and get Assad to pull back and not go down this road.

O'BRIEN: Yes, with such ominous signs.

Barbara for us at the Pentagon -- thank you, Barbara. Appreciate the update.

STARR: Sure.

O'BRIEN: Bottom of the hour, we're going to be talking with Ambassador Nick Burns about this.

First, though, I want to get right to Zoraida Sambolin with an update with some of the stories that are making news.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning.

Well, now, to the fast-moving developments in Egypt. Here's a live look outside the presidential palace. This is Cairo, where protesters are starting to gather. Tanks and armored vehicles are stationed there.

Yesterday, into the morning, clashes turned deadly after the country unveiled its new constitution. That nation's highest Islamic religious authority is calling on President Mohamed Morsi to rescind his controversial decree that granted himself sweeping powers.

And second-degree murder, that is a charge against Naeem Davis. He allegedly pushed 58 Ki-Suck Han on to the tracks of a New York City subway station and into the path of oncoming train. The victim's daughter says her family is thankful for the outpouring of support.


ASHLEY HAN, VICTIM'S DAUGHTER: Our family is grieving now, but we want to thank everyone who reached out to us and offer their help. We are suffering in sorry but we have the support of family, friends and our church to help us through this time.


SAMBOLIN: Police say the suspect, Naeem Davis, blamed the victim for that tragic incident, telling them Han was bothering him and wouldn't leave him alone.

With 26 days left before we go over the fiscal cliff, President Obama and Speaker Boehner are finally talking. They spoke by phone yesterday. There's no word of significant progress there or the scheduling of future talks. But there are signs of compromise on the GOP side. Oklahoma's Republican Senator Tom Coburn breaking ranks, saying revenues are needed and he prefers an approach that raises taxes on the wealthy.

And in a moment, we'll be joined by Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio. He decided not to run for another term because of the gridlock in Washington.

The duchess of Cambridge has been discharged from the London hospital. She's nearly three months pregnant and was treated for acute morning sickness. She was smiling when she left King Edward VII Hospital this morning with, of course, Prince William by her side. Kate is heading to Kensington Palace for a short rest period.

And Grammy nominations are out. Kelly Clarkson is out for two of the biggest awards, song of the year and record of the year for her hit "Stronger." Six artists tied for the most nominations with six a piece, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Mumford and Sons, Frank Ocean, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Yes, big yay for that, and the group Fun.

The Grammys will be handed out February 10th in Los Angeles.

Are you a big Ocean fan?

O'BRIEN: I'm a big Frank Ocean fan. I hope he does. He cleans up. That would be nice.

All right. Our team this morning: Jim Frederick is with us. He's the international editor of "TIME" magazine. Abby Huntsman is back. She's the host of "HuffPost Live", the daughter of former Governor Jon Huntsman. Roland Martin is a CNN political analyst, host of "Washington Watch with Roland Martin." Zoraida sticks around with us as well from "EARLY START" this morning.

Let's talk about pot, shall we?


O'BRIEN: How about that for a sharp turn? Eight hours ago, though, it became legal to have up to an ounce of marijuana in the state of Washington. It's still illegal in the eyes of federal government, of course. You can't smoke in public in Washington. But last night, they had a little exception, as they had a celebration right in front of the Seattle's Space Needle.

CNN's Miguel Marquez is in Seattle with an update on how that went last night. Good morning.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. It went very well from their perspective, even though it was cold out and starting to rain. It didn't dampen their spirits very much. It was just one of many, many parties across the state as proponents say the first revolutionary step was taken.


MARQUEZ (voice-over): 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 (on camera): Several dozen hardcore 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.

And while the new law does not allow 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 assume the stores will look like? Or something along these lines?

JAMEN SHIVELY, MARIJUANA ENTREPRENEUR: Yes. Our stores are going to have the feel of a fine cigar shop.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Jamen Shively, once a high profile executive at Microsoft, is now preparing to open as many as two dozen high-end marijuana shops in Washington and Colorado. Yesterday, he'd be called a drug dealer. Today, an entrepreneur.

SHIVELY: Our target market is actually baby boomers. So, these are folks who maybe tried it in college a couple of times, maybe they didn't inhale. And -- 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, INITIATIVE 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 is still illegal federally. Today, a legal toak-up revolution burning here and soon Colorado.


MARQUEZ: Now, the only thing the federal government is saying at this point is that they are reviewing the laws here in Washington and in Colorado, which they get going by January 5th. They will see where they go in the days ahead. Back to you.

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

Steve Sarich is also in Seattle. He's the executive director of the Cannabis Action Coalition. He's also a manager of the no on I-502 Committee which was the most vocal opponent of the Washington law that was passed.

Nice to have you with us this morning. So, you actually had asked --


O'BRIEN: -- the judge to temporarily block this new law. On what grounds?

SARICH: Well, first of all, we want to block it permanently. What the state constitution requires is that a ballot measure described everything that the voter is voting on and this adds a new criminal penalty to the Washington state statutes and that wasn't mentioned on the ballot initiative. And so, for that and a couple of other reasons, we're asking them to actually overturn the law not just temporarily stop it.

O'BRIEN: So, I think people would be surprised to know that you're the executive director of the Cannabis Action Coalition. You run a local dispensary. You use medical marijuana yourself for back pain that comes from severe arthritis.

SARICH: Right.

O'BRIEN: How much of this is your concern from a business perspective about the law and less a moral perspective, if you will, about smoking pot?

SARICH: Absolutely none. This doesn't affect me financially whatsoever. My job is to protect patients in the state of Washington.

And this law criminalizes every single medical marijuana patient every single time they drive. And for patients under 21 or just students under 21, we know that active TCH can stay in your system for up to 30 days so that joint -- that legal joint you smoked two weeks ago is still in your system today. And under the new law, if you get pulled over and they take your blood, you're going to be guilty of, per se, DUID, which is a very serious crime in the state of Washington. It's a life-changing crime for those under 21.

O'BRIEN: So, let's walk through for folks who aren't aware of the details some of the new driving rules, which I know you're really focused on, under the influence driving. Legal THC limit would be 5 nanograms per milliliter. Officers could conduct sobriety tests. A serious accident would, in fact, mandate that you get your blood drawn. They can't search the car for smell alone.

I would think that -- you've called these laws, these rules draconian. I think a lot of people would say, listen, I support draconian laws about people getting in the vehicle who are under the influence of any kind of drug, you know, being held to high standards if they're going to get behind the wheel of a car.

SARICH: Well, you have to -- you have to understand something, is that per se DUID laws have no relation to impairment whatsoever. What the National Institute of Drug Abuse has stated, along with the national institute -- National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, the federal Department of Transportation, all have put out studies that show that you cannot judge impairment simply by blood content on any drug other than alcohol.

So by setting an arbitrary limit, I wake up in the morning at probably four or five times the legal limit, where I am right now. Hopefully, I don't appear too impaired.

So you cannot -- we're not talking about impairment. We're not talking about highway safety. We're talking about convicting people simply for having trace amounts of THC in their blood. In other words, now, they're saying you can have -- you can legally have an ounce of marijuana. You just better not put it in your body.

O'BRIEN: So let me ask you a stupid question. Do you -- are you always at four or five times the legal limit? I mean, would that be everybody's definition of stoned and this is how you go through your day?

SARICH: But I'm not stoned. I hope I don't appear stoned.

O'BRIEN: No, you don't at all.

SARICH: Again, active THC, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the latest study came out in April from Dr. Erin Karschner says active THC, which is stored in fat cells, can stay in your body up to 30 days. So, 30 days from last use.

And if you're a medical cannabis patient and you suffer from back pain, like I do, you are using it every day, it doesn't mean you are impaired in any way, shape or form, it just means the drug is stored in your fat cells and it will always be there. I will never be below 5 nanograms. I will always be guilty of DUID every time I get behind the wheel, even though I'm not impaired at all. O'BRIEN: Steve Sarich is the executive director of the Cannabis Action Coalition -- it's nice to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

SARICH: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning: President Obama and Speaker Boehner talked by phone about the fiscal cliff. Will they meet face to face? And will anything be accomplished before it's just too late?

Congressman Steve LaTourette is going to talk to us coming up soon.

Also, instead of going to jail, a drug driver is sentenced to mandatory time in church. Hmm. ACLU, no surprise, now getting involved in that one. Is it a fair punishment? Should church be a punishment at all? Our tough call.

You're watching STARTING POINT.


MARTIN: How bad the church is.

O'BRIEN: How bad is the preacher.

We're back in just a moment.



O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. For the first time in a week, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner talked about the fiscal cliff. It was by phone, which I guess is better than nothing. But we haven't heard much about that conversation. Both sides have agreed that they would not really talk about the details.

What we do know is that it has not led yet to any major breakthroughs. We want to get to Congressman Steve LaTourette. He's a Republican from the state of Ohio. He's leaving Congress. He's decided not to run for re-election. He has cited gridlock in Washington as a big reason why. It's nice to have you with us. We appreciate your time this morning.


O'BRIEN: Can we start with Syria first before we get to the fiscal cliff? We know that there's this red line that Hillary Clinton has talked about. But NBC News has reported that Syria is loading chemical weapon components on to bombs, which could -- makes us think, well, what's the next step? And to what degree does this mean military action for the United States?

LATOURETTE: Couple of things. I think the NBC report is unconfirmed. The other piece of news is that the secretary is expected to meet with the Russian foreign minister in Dublin, I believe, and to talk specifically about getting the OK to put in place economic sanctions that would cripple the Syrian government should they continue down this path.

But just like a nuclear Iran, no one is going to sit by in the international community and say it's OK for the Assad regime to use sarin gas on its own civilian.

O'BRIEN: We'll watch to see what comes out of that meeting in Dublin. The phone call between the Speaker and the President, you know, it's interesting when you have something that's kind of nothing to be. That's the headline of the meeting is sort of a sad thing. Are you hearing anything that has come out of this phone call?

LATOURETTE: Well, the phone call, I think, was generated that we had a meeting of the House Republicans yesterday morning as we always do every week, and the sense was that there's a growing number of folks in our party that are saying, you know what?

The President has won this round relative to the rates, but you know, we needed to sit down and get the second half of the deal, and that's the spending, because if you look at just what the President is talking about, everybody says the two percent and so forth and so on. That generates $900 billion over ten years, which is $90 billion a year.

That will operate the government for 11 days. And so, we are borrowing $1.6 trillion. I think that the President, if he wants to take the deal and comes forward with real entitlement reform, there's a deal to be had.

O'BRIEN: The Republicans walked out. We've got shots of that. They were sort of streaming out of the capitol, heading home, because there will be no votes between now and the weekend. I want to show that video, because I'm curious of what you know of the optics of that. You know, when everybody starts, you know, sort of -- that wasn't it.

He's going up to a podium. There we go. That's the shot I'm looking for. What are the optics of everybody walking out as Americans are focused on Washington, D.C. and trying to figure out every last move in the fiscal cliff? Do you worry about that from your colleagues in the House?

LATOURETTE: Well, I've got to tell you, I've been here 18 years. And, this is going to be a negotiation between the President of the United States and House Speaker John Boehner. And so, we have engaged in some charades over the last 18 years where we all like pretend to be working in our offices, but we're not doing anything to get this done because there's nothing we can do.

This is going to be a discussion between the top leaders of the House and the White House. And when they signal -- sort of like the pope being elected. You know, when the white smoke comes out of the capitol, then we can come back and execute the deal.

O'BRIEN: Wow! I don't know how I feel about the whole pope reference, talking about Congress. LATOURETTE: That's better than being sentenced to church, I guess.


O'BRIEN: I suppose that is true. And, in fact, that's going to be our next story. Steve LaTourette, always nice to have you. When you're in New York, we'd love to have you come and sit down with us on our panel.

LATOURETTE: Would love to.

O'BRIEN: We appreciate that.



O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, that very story, in fact. Drunk driver, instead of being sentenced to prison, is sentenced to time in church. Not sure how I feel about that.

MARTIN: Love it.

O'BRIEN: You do?

MARTIN: (SINGING) presence of the Lord is here.


O'BRIEN: We'll talk about that straight ahead. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. OK. Here's our "Tough Call." A judge in Oklahoma has sentenced a man to attend church for ten years instead of going to prison for killing two people in a deadly DUI crash. It happened last year. Seventeen-year-old Tyler Alred (ph) says he's OK with the judge's ruling. I imagine so.

The ACLU, though, is going to will step in. The group has filed a complaint. They claimed that the judge disregarded the first amendment, violated the teenager's religious liberties, even though the teen has been attending church every Sunday and wants to complete the sentence.

SAMBOLIN: So, nothing will change in his life.

ABBY HUNTSMAN, HOST, HUFFPOST LIVE: I mean, do you, guys, remember the story back in 1993, the two sisters in Mississippi that were charged with robbery, stole $11?


O'BRIEN: I remember that when they got out.

HUNTSMAN: They were sentenced to life in prison. So, can someone explain the comparison here?

O'BRIEN: Yes. You know, I do wonder if judges overreach by sending someone off to church. The kid already goes to church, right?

JIM FREDERICK, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, TIME: And how much latitude is the judge given statutorily? I mean, it just seems like did he just make this enough? I mean, certainly, there's no provision on the box that he's allowed to do this. So, it seems like it would be striking down pretty easily.

O'BRIEN: On the other side, 17 years old.

MARTIN: Hey, (INAUDIBLE) we got a great pastor, great choir. Hey, might be a great experience for him. Bottom line is --

O'BRIEN: He killed two people.

MARTIN: I understand he killed two people. I also might look at this from a judge's standpoint, a sense of redemption, and also saying in terms of, do you send this person to juvenile, do you send them to prison? A cost to taxpayers in some places upwards of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

O'BRIEN: What's more likely to turn him around?

MARTIN: -- what could turn around? So --


O'BRIEN: is prison or is church going to turn him around?

SAMBOLIN: You said he goes to church already.

O'BRIEN: Well, he, apparently, has been attending church on Sundays, but

MARTIN: Maybe it wasn't a really good church.


SAMBOLIN: How do you monitor whether he's going to be OK, whether he's taking any action in order to improve and not --


HUNTSMAN: There seems to be a serious violation of church and state. Beyond that, what message does that send to others and their teens that say, you know what, I can't (ph) get away with the worst case, I go to church.


O'BRIEN: Again, the ACLU -- all these reasons and more why the ACLU has hopped into this debate.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT there are some fears that Syria could unleash chemical weapons on its own people, drag even the United States into war. We're going to be talking with Ambassador Nicolas Burns about that.

And then, better late than silver. How the United States could still pick up another gold? We're back in just a moment with that.