In 1998, Washington, DC, voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana initiative, only to have it blocked uncounted by the District's congressional overseers. But after a federal court battle led by the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) resulted in the congressional amendment to the DC appropriations bill being ruled unconstitutional, MPP took to the streets this summer to gather signatures for another DC medical marijuana initiative. The group needed to gather 17,500 valid signatures by July 13 to get on the ballot.
On Monday, MPP presented petitions with more than 39,000 signatures to the DC Board of Elections, almost ensuring that District voters will have another chance to vote on medical marijuana this fall. "This safely qualifies us for the referendum," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a DC press conference announcing the petition delivery. "We did not want some bad guys in Congress to challenge us on this."
Kampia had one congressional "bad guy" in mind: Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), the drug war zealot and occasional libertarian who engineered the successful congressional effort to keep medical marijuana away from residents of "the last plantation," as District residents unhappy with their lack of congressional representation sometimes refer to the city. The infamous Barr is already attempting another blocking move.
On Monday, Barr sent a letter to Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI), head of the House Appropriations Committee DC Subcommittee, requesting that he include an amendment to the city's 2003 funding bill that would block spending on the initiative. "The DC initiative is another attempt by the drug legalization movement to move its agenda forward, to legalize marijuana under the pretext of 'medicinal' use," wrote Barr. "My language is wholly appropriate and necessary to prevent legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia, and to prevent the use of taxpayers' monies to carry out the provisions of any such initiative."
There is no word yet on whether subcommittee chair Knollenberg will accept the Barr amendment, but MPP's Kampia told the press conference his group is already engaged in lobbying Congress to block the Barr effort. In a press release announcing the petition turn-in, MPP wrote it had already contacted more than 80 lawmakers since April and is arranging meetings between constituents and 120 congressional offices between now and Labor Day.
In any event, said Kampia, MPP will not quit until medical marijuana is legalized in the District. Medical marijuana is particularly important in Washington, DC, said Kampia, because the District has a high number of AIDS patients. "We do not believe sick people should be put in prison for using medical marijuana," he said.
The initiative has the support of a majority of the DC city council, five members of which filed affidavits in federal court backing MPP's lawsuit against Congress. For the council members, the issue is as much one of home rule -- the ability of DC residents to decide their own municipal fate -- as it is about medical marijuana. But the combination of popular support for medical marijuana in the District (it won 69% of the vote vs. 21% against in 1998) and anger over congressional interference provides a certain synergy to the effort.
"The initiative is justified on its merits, but it is also a matter of home rule," Councilman Jim Graham told the press conference. Graham, former director of the Whitman Walker Clinic for HIV/AIDS in Northwest Washington, said his experience at the clinic led him to favor the initiative. "I saw for myself the specific circumstances when patients need medical marijuana. I believe doctors ought to prescribe it," he said. "I feel comfortable about that."
The DC medical marijuana initiative may have popular support and political backing, but the extremely brief window of opportunity for signature gathering meant that MPP had to call in professional signature-gatherers to get the job done on time. That cost MPP and its funders more than $60,000, and they are still looking for another $5,000 to print 10,000 yard signs. Those signs will read: "This is OUR District, not Bob Barr's! Vote for Medical Marijuana AGAIN!"
The DC Board of Elections is expected to review the signatures and formally certify the initiative for the November ballot early next month, but MPP and the District's medical marijuana patients and supporters aren't waiting.