When 65 percent of Arizona's voters passed a referendum in 1996 legalizing the medical use of marijuana, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) hit the stump. Over the next two years, the freshman senator argued to state lawmakers, Congress and local reporters that undoing the state's drug laws would betray Arizona children and his own law-and-order values.
State legislators sent the measure back to the ballot last November--where voters passed it again. Kyl and other opponents could only console themselves that the margin of approval had narrowed to 57 percent.
Now, members of Congress who believe easing state laws on marijuana would subvert the nation's war on drugs have a new target: the District of Columbia's medical marijuana initiative. For them, this is a chance to act on their conviction without riling constituents back home--though some lawmakers seem to be keeping a low profile on the issue.
Georgia Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R) and Ohio Sen. George V. Voinovich (R) recently introduced legislation to overturn the D.C. referendum, which won 69 percent of the vote last fall. Although Congress has clear authority to oversee the District, members whose states have passed similar initiatives appear wary of undoing a decision endorsed by their own constituents.
Nevada Sens. Harry M. Reid (D) and Richard H. Bryan (D) are hedging questions on the subject. Reid opposed a Nevada initiative passed last fall, but his spokesman, asked how the lawmaker would vote on the D.C. initiative, replied, "I'm not sure it's so simple." A spokesman for Bryan responded, "I'm not sure he's taken a position on that." Nevada voters will face the issue again this fall, since all referendum proposals must be approved twice to become law.
Kyl, who faces a reelection bid next fall, said in 1996 that he was "embarrassed" by the Arizona vote, but explained later that he was talking about the margin of defeat, not voters' judgment. His spokesman declined to say how Kyl would vote on the District's initiative, saying, "It sounds like nothing is pressing until the D.C. Council acts."
The District's Initiative 59 would change city drug laws to allow the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana if recommended by a physician for serious illness. Only six states--Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington--have passed similar legislation, and most of their congressional representatives have stayed out of the home-state fray, letting governors and local lawmakers shoulder the debate.
If a vote is taken, it could force Democrats and Republicans to choose between standing with the majority of their constituents back home or ignoring similar sentiments by District voters in order to enforce tough drug laws.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, has opposed California's medical marijuana initiative, calling such measures dangerous and ridden with loopholes. But Feinstein, who also faces a reelection bid in 2000, said she is sensitive to the needs of terminally ill patients and will examine the District's measure before making a decision.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would not say how he would vote. He released a statement explaining that despite his personal "reservations" about Oregon's medical marijuana law, "the people of my state have spoken, and I intend to honor their will."
The House voted 310 to 93 a year ago to approve a non-binding resolution opposing state efforts to allow medical use of marijuana. But Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who introduced a companion resolution, also has not indicated how he will vote on the D.C. measure, his spokeswoman said.
By law, Congress can negate the District initiative within 30 business days, once the D.C. financial control board reviews and forwards it. Congress could also kill the marijuana measure by denying funding.
"It's a twofold rationale" in Congress for overturning the D.C. initiative, said Marshall Wittman, director of congressional relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "There is Congress's clear, constitutional prerogative over issues concerning the District, but also many believe in Congress that the District should serve as a model to the rest of the country."
Supporters of medical marijuana laws say the drug can alleviate symptoms of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses. Opponents, including the White House's national drug policy office, cite a lack of conclusive findings about marijuana's efficacy and current research into treatment alternatives.
Those who back the D.C. measure decry congressional intervention, claiming "hypocrisy" by members who protest federal intrusion in their home states but interfere elsewhere.
"The Republicans, the party of states' rights, are only for states' rights when they agree with what a state or the District of Columbia is doing," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), who has battled congressional efforts to undo Oregon's law permitting physician-assisted suicide. To Congress, the District is a "sandbox."
"They can use it for experiments and indulge in things they might want to do to voters at home, but here they can do with impunity," he said.
For now, the congressional fight against the D.C. measure is being led by those whose constituents have not endorsed similar initiatives. And even for past critics of D.C. statehood and management, the issue is touchy.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), whose district strongly supported California's marijuana referendum, voted against the non-binding resolution opposing medical marijuana. An aide hinted that his vote on the D.C. measure would similarly factor in constituent views.
"If he's faced with this vote on the House floor," a spokesman said, "he will look very closely at how conservative Orange County voted on the California measure."