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  •   Marijuana Vote Results Kept Secret

     
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    By Peter Slevin and Caryle Murphy
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, November 4, 1998; Page A37

    Voters made their choices, machines counted ballots, but the results of the District's medical marijuana initiative must remain secret to comply with rules passed by Congress, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics decided.

    To avoid crossing Congress, election workers used white-out to hide the results on computer printouts, said Kenneth McGhie, elections board general counsel.

    Tabulated yeas and nays on Initiative 59 cannot be announced, the board concluded, because Congress barred the District from spending money to carry out any ballot initiative that would legalize drugs or reduce penalties for their use, possession or sale.

    The fate of Initiative 59, which would permit patients to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, now rests in U.S. District Court, where supporters are demanding that the vote be honored. Until the ruling is made – no hearing is scheduled – the elections board will take no further steps.

    "The board will comply with the order of the court at the appropriate time," elections board Chairman Benjamin Wilson said in a statement. "Ever mindful of its primary role of insuring a fair and honest election, the board is reluctant to enter into a political dispute with Congress. However, the board must have direction from the court."

    Supporters of the ballot measure were angered by the congressional move.

    James Millner, spokesman for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which helped sponsor the ballot initiative, called congressional action an "assault on democracy." He said, "It's Congress looking at a group of people – citizens of the District of Columbia – and saying, 'Your vote doesn't matter.' People who oppose this initiative also should be angry about this."

    At a Northeast Washington precinct on East Capitol Street, 10 of 12 voters said they voted in favor of the initiative.

    Retired federal employee Rosetta Hamm, 66, said, "I'm against drugs, period, but if it helps the sick and the ill, I'm for it, especially for those with HIV."

    Margaret Loewinger sees the matter in personal terms. "I've seen death and dying too closely. I've watched my dad suffer from cancer," said Loewinger, 51, who works at the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. She said she was in favor of "anything that can be done to improve the quality of life. I'm not concerned that it's going to confuse our policemen's jobs."

    David Vaughan, a 28-year-old federal government analyst who opposes the measure, said, "I don't want to go down that slippery slope of allowing illegal drugs to be legal."

    Activists gathered 17,000 signatures to get the measure on the District ballot, only to learn last month that Congress would rather the measure die. U.S. Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a former prosecutor, sponsored the amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill prohibiting the District from spending money on such an initiative.

    The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in U.S. District Court on Friday, asking Judge Richard Roberts to prevent Congress from voiding the election results. The lawsuit asks the court to order the city elections board to certify the results, allowing Initiative 59 to become law if it passes.

    Initiative 59 is designed to help residents of the city afflicted with diseases such as AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. It would permit people to use, cultivate and distribute marijuana if "recommended" by a doctor. A doctor's prescription would not be required.

    The measure also would require the city to provide for the "safe and affordable" distribution of the drug to Medicaid patients and other impoverished residents on a doctor's recommendation.

    Marijuana possession is a crime in the District, punishable by a sentence as long as six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. Last year, D.C. courts recorded 313 convictions on marijuana-related charges, including 231 for possession. In 1996, there were 216 convictions. In 1995, there were 140.

    Custodian Mohammad Adil, 50, voted in favor of Initiative 59, not the least because marijuana "comes from the ground. It probably has medicinal purposes."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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