Take a marijuana icon from the publishing world, toss him in a room with a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent and let them fight it out over the issue of legalization. That's the recipe for Heds -v- Feds, the Great Debate.
In this corner, the king of the cannabis counter-culture, former editor of High Times magazine, Steve Hager. And in the opposite corner, former DEA agent and prominent anti-drug speaker, Robert Stutman.
Putting these two opposites in the same room it's hard to imagine anything but tension but May 20, in the packed lecture hall that occupies the basement of Showalter, a surprising lack of tension prevailed as the ruffled silver-haired hippie strolled onto the stage alongside the clean-cut ex-DEA Agent.
After nine years touring the country with their Heds -v- Feds debate this oddest of pairs has become close friends, but it wasn't always that way.
“The first time I ever saw him was on a stage,” Stutman said gesturing towards Hager. As he explained how he was approached by his agent with the idea for Heds -v- Feds years ago.
“What happened was, we were down south and some fundamentalist Christian started attacking me as a agent of the devil,” Hager said. “Bob took my side and defended me . . . after that we became friends.”
The debate begins with Hager up first. Back and forth he paced to the right of the long table set up on the stage, listing off his five reasons pot should be legal.
“Boy he's good, maybe I wont even try,” Stutman jokes when it comes to his turn.
As Stutman lays out the anti-legalization side it becomes apparent that, while their political objectives seem worlds apart, their personal opinions are a lot more a like than one would assume.
“I don't believe anyone should go to jail for the use of a drug,” Stutman said as Hager's mouth parts in a characteristic goofy half grin at the other end of the table.
But Stutman was also quick to point out, “I don't see how it will help our society to add another intoxicant to the mix.”
While the broad strokes of the debate are planned, the show isn't scripted and changes often as Stutman and Hager continuously do new research on their points.
“The truth is we keep it so fresh because we both travel so much and are so tired most of the time that we can't remember one show to another,” Hager said. “The facts change a little bit but there's core elements that never change.”
Some of the core elements are the hard learned lessons of nine years speaking to sometimes hostile crowds.
“Once we started to become friends all the hysteria went out of the show. When it started we were just screaming at each other and the crowd was just eating it up,” Hager said. “Then we realized, 'oh well, we can actually just sit and talk about it in a normal tone of voice.' We tried that but the crowd kept screaming.”
They had to figure out how to coax the audience into accepting that a respectful exchange of ideas can be more effective than seeing who can shout the loudest. Most of this is done with comedy.
“Then they all had to accept Bob,” Hager said. “In the early days they would want to lynch him and stuff. Now the show ends and they all want to hug him.”
In spite of the humorous back and forth between speakers, there is a more serious message.
“I'll tell you what makes me feel the best, my goal,” Stutman said. “It's when kids come up to me at some point like tonight and say, 'I disagree with you but you're really making me think.' My goal is to make college students think.”
For Hager, it's about trying to make marijuana users more responsible. In a twist that seemed to surprise the crowd, he ended his argument with the the statement that people out there wake and baking before class and staying stoned all day long are doing more to hurt the legalization movement than help. It's never going to be legalized if users can't be responsible about it.
With almost no empty seats in the house, every set of eyes glowing with a rapt attention that many lecture halls don't often see, the message seemed to get across to Eastern Washington University students.
“This audience was great,” Stutman said. “I think that really should be said. They really were good,”