On November 3, voters in five and possibly six states plus Washington DC will have an opportunity to vote on the question of whether patients who choose to use marijuana for certain ailments will be legally protected, or face arrest. Voters in California and Arizona decided in favor of patients in 1996, in both cases by wide margins, leading to a reaction resembling apoplexy by some elected officials.
Leading up to those elections, three former presidents, as well as Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and others came out strenuously against the initiatives. In Arizona, Senator Jon Kyl, speaking on the floor of the Senate days after the election, claimed that his constituents had been "duped" and in the Arizona state house, legislation was passed which gutted the intent of Prop. 200. Arizona's citizens will vote on Prop. 300, a bill that would maintain the legislature's changes -- no on 300 would restore Prop. 200.
In California, the federal government stepped in, first to threaten doctors with loss of their prescription licenses and arrest if they discussed the benefits of marijuana with patients. After a federal judge issued a restraining order against those plans based upon first amendment concerns, the feds moved to plan B, shutting down patient cooperatives, arresting activists, and allegedly working behind the scenes with state law enforcement to defy the spirit, if not the letter of the California law.
This year, the U.S. Congress passed a "sense of the house resolution" against the medicinal use of marijuana. And finally, in an act which raises important constitutional issues, the Congress, as part of the District of Columbia's omnibus appropriations bill, forbade federal monies from being used for any DC initiative which would lower penalties for marijuana.
Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and former counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime (1979-89), who said that the Constitutional implications of the provision are relevant for all Americans. "The fact is that the Congress has the power, once an initiative is passed in DC, to vote it down, nullifying its legal impact. But this act, to keep Washingtonians from even expressing themselves on the issue, seems to contravene the constitutional right of the people to petition the government for redress of their grievances. A prior restraint to interfere with the First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances is something that every citizen around the country should be concerned about ... and wonder why providing marijuana to sick people could provoke such an extreme reaction by the US Congress."
The Colorado initiative has also run up against problems in the weeks leading up to election day. In that state, the Secretary of State, Vikki Buckley, initially announced that petitioners had failed to present enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. (They needed 52,000 and had turned in over 80,000.) That led to a court challenge in which it was determined that the count was indeed erroneous, and that the initiative should be on the ballot. An appeal of that determination led to a decision requiring that office to do a full line by line (rather than statistical sampling) count. Buckley later claimed that the new count also showed the petitions insufficient, and so the initiative was off the ballot. But backers of the initiative went back and checked the work again, and claimed to have found thousands of errors in the count, which they will present to the court late this week. At our deadline, it was still undetermined whether or not the citizens of Colorado would have an opportunity to decide the question for themselves. But other than that, proponents of the initiatives headed into their final week of preparations confident that they would win most, if not all, of the initiatives that did make it to the ballot.
Bill Zimmerman, director of Americans for Medical Rights, told The Week Online, "The polling, both our own and the polls done by TV and newspapers, indicate that the medical marijuana initiatives are running ahead in all five states and the district. But of course, our opponents are working hard to nullify the will of the voters in Colorado and also in Washington DC, which, I would mention, is not one that we have worked on. In the case of Colorado, our people have looked over the work that was done by the Secretary of State's office and have found ample numbers of signatures that were improperly disqualified, and so we are hopeful that we will be on the ballot. If not, we will seek redress through the courts."
Rob Kampia, Director of governmental relations with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington DC, has been working on the DC initiative for several months. He told The Week Online that he was "appalled but not surprised" that Congress used the backdoor of the appropriations bill in an attempt to deny the citizens of the nation's capital a chance to be heard on the issue. "This will not be successful," Kampia said. "For a representative from Georgia (Bob Barr, R-GA), three days before he goes home, to essentially legislate the people of Washington DC out of their own local decision-making process is a stunning indication of just how meaningless freedom and democracy are, as concepts, to many members of the House. This vote will be counted, and all necessary steps will be taken to make sure of that."
(Medical marijuana initiatives are on the ballot in Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Oregon will also vote on recriminalization of marijuana and Arizona will vote on broader drug policy reform measures. Detailed info on all the initiatives is available online at http://www.drcnet.org/election98/.