Understanding Initiative 59:
Legalizing Medical Marijuana
By John P. Martin
District voters will do more than elect a new mayor on Nov. 3. They’ll be asked resolve a years-old debate: Should people suffering from AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses be allowed to use marijuana to treat their conditions?
The only ballot measure this year is Initiative 59, also known as the "Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998." Here’s a brief look:
What would Initiative 59 do?
Who would benefit?
Who would grow the drug?
The legislation also would permit the establishment of nonprofit corporations to legally grow and sell the drug. Advocates say such "growers clubs" are necessary and easier to regulate.
Who supports the proposal and why?
Locally, Initiative 59 was spearheaded by members of Act Up, a gay-rights advocacy group, and the Green Party of D.C. One of the key supporters, activist Steve Michael, died in May after a battle with AIDS. His partner, Wayne Turner, is named as sponsor of the legislation.
Mayor Marion W. Barry has stated his support for the initiative. Mayoral candidates Carol Schwartz (R) and Anthony A. Williams (D) favor the measure, as do a majority of D.C. Council members including Linda Cropp, Kathy Patterson, Jack Evans, Kevin P. Chavous, Charlene Drew Jarvis, David Catania and Hilda H.M. Mason. Officials at Whitman-Walker Clinic, the city's largest provider of AIDS-related services, have endorsed it as well.
Who opposes it?
Critics also have included Barry R. McCaffrey, who directs the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Joseph Califano, former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare, and conservatives such as millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who aired radio advertisements opposing the measure last fall.
They have argued such laws are too loosely structured, impossible to regulate, could stir more drug use by children and are thinly veiled efforts by those who want to legalize drugs. Opponents also note that deserving patients can already get prescriptions for Marinol, a pill form of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that some say offers the same treatment benefits as smoked marijuana.
McCaffrey wrote: "The setting for marijuana typically has been in classrooms, where it interferes with learning; automobiles, where it interferes with driving, and the workplace, where it interferes with productivity not in hospitals contributing to healing."
Have other cities or states considered similar initiatives?
One of the primary sponsors of measures in those states is Americans for Medical Rights, a California-based group lobbying nationwide for medical marijuana laws. AMR is not affiliated with Initiative 59 in the District.
"We really designed this to specifically to fit the needs of patients here in Washington, D.C.," Turner said.
How did the proposal get on the D.C. ballot?
Will I recognize it on the ballot?
How many votes does the initiative need to pass?
What happens if it passes?
If no hurdles emerge, patients with proper physicians’ recommendations could be legally accessing the drug by spring 1999.
[Two weeks before the election, Congress appeared to erect such a hurdle, denying the district the funds to count and certify the results and essentially blocking it from becoming law.]
What happens if it fails?
AMR has collected petitions to circulate for a similar D.C. measure, now dubbed Initiative 60, but is first waiting to see how Initiative 59 fares at the polls next month, said spokesman Dave Fratello.
He also said his organization will target states for medical marijuana referendums in the next election cycle. "We know this is a long-term process," Fratello said.
Where can I read the text of the legislation?
John P. Martin can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 703-469-3179.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company