District voters overwhelmingly approved a measure last fall to legalize the medical use of marijuana, according to results released yesterday, but congressional Republicans again vowed that the initiative would not become law.
Congress had forbidden city officials to even count the votes until a federal judge intervened last week; the results released yesterday showed that the initiative was approved 69 percent to 31 percent. Since 1996, similar measures have been approved in six states and are in effect in four of them.
Initiative 59 would change D.C. drug laws to permit the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana if recommended by a physician for serious illness. Advocates contend that marijuana can alleviate symptoms of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses, but opponents maintain that patients have other alternatives and that legalizing drugs sets a dangerous precedent.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District, said that Congress is "determined" to reject the legislation, adding that it is so broadly drafted that it would hamper enforcement of any anti-marijuana laws in the city.
"If Fairfax County voted to allow medical use of marijuana, the state wouldn't let us, would it? That's the analogy I hear from members," said Davis, who opposes the measure.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) kept up his long-standing support of the initiative, saying, "I call upon Congress to respect the will of the electorate of the District of Columbia who have decided on this measure."
For two straight years, members of Congress have endorsed riders to the D.C. appropriations bill barring marijuana legalization, a move that U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts last week ruled did not extend to sealing the referendum results.
In September 1998, the full House voted 310 to 93 in favor of a nonbinding resolution opposing marijuana legalization for medicinal use. One referendum supporter, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), warned that D.C. voters probably would "be deprived of the right to exercise their own judgment."
"Most of the members are rightfully reticent to override a democratic referendum, but they're also afraid that . . . they will be subjected to 30-second ads claiming they voted to legalize drugs," said Moran, senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), provided an idea of what's in store in the initiative battle when he said the vote results threatened "to reignite the national ridicule of D.C. that erupted" when then-Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for cocaine possession in a sting operation.
Although D.C. voters cast their ballots on the issue Nov. 3, the results had remained secret because of a congressional amendment last year that forbade the District to spend money on any initiative that would loosen laws governing marijuana use. On Friday, Roberts cleared the way for the tallies to be announced and certified by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Medicinal marijuana laws already are in effect in Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington state. The only legislature that tried to overturn a result, the Arizona body, was rebuffed when citizens passed a referendum a second time, although the measure did not remove criminal penalties.
The results of the D.C. vote showed 75,536 D.C. residents in favor and 34,621 opposed. Supporters commanded 69 percent of the vote, the largest percentage recorded in any medical marijuana initiative in the country. It passed in every precinct.
The matter will be sent to Congress, which has 30 working days to either allow the new law to be enacted or to override it. Because of the city's unique status, the District's home rule charter makes Congress the ultimate authority on local laws.
"Yes, this is a victory, but there's a lot of work to do," acknowledged Wayne Turner, an AIDS activist who led the initiative campaign.
Turner was among a crowd of initiative supporters who gathered at the election board's office yesterday to get the news. He stood beside a computer as officials pushed a button that printed out the results and looked over as Alice P. Miller, the election board's executive director, gave him a thumbs up.
Turner and his partner, Steve Michael, had launched the initiative campaign in December 1996, working to generate enough signatures to get it on the ballot. Michael, who had AIDS, died in May 1998, and Turner vowed to continue the campaign without him. Turner and his friends brought Michael's ashes with them to election headquarters yesterday. "We wanted Steve to be here," Turner said.
The 30-day window in Congress isn't the only obstacle. Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), who pushed through the amendment thwarting initiative supporters last year, came up with a new version that has passed in the House and Senate. Attached to the D.C. appropriations bill, the new amendment prohibits the District from spending any money to enact any law that would legalize any drugs or reduce penalties. Under current law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and it would send a terrible message to America's young people to allow those laws to be openly flouted in the same city where they were passed," Barr said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who opposed both Barr amendments, issued a statement praising last week's court decision, saying it "vindicated democratic self-government."
Although the White House has threatened to veto the D.C. appropriations package and its amendments, the Clinton administration has not embraced the medical use of marijuana.
National Drug Policy Director Barry R. McCaffrey reiterated his opposition yesterday, saying the initiative "flies in the face" of findings issued this year by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. The report detected "little future [for] or benefit from smoked marijuana as a medically approved medication."
Davis also directed a volley at the White House, saying, "It's hard for the president to veto a D.C. appropriations bill because we won't allow legalized marijuana use in the District. That's just a tough sell."
Istook took a tougher position: "If there is a veto, it'll show that Bill Clinton is as soft on drugs as he is on Puerto Rican terrorists."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which joined with the D.C. government to wage the recent court challenge, said it was studying options. Mary Jane DeFrank, executive director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, said Congress should not make the District "a political plaything" when people who are suffering from disease could get help.
"Congress ought not to take any action at all," she said.
Key Dates in Medical Marijuana Dispute
Dec. 5, 1996: Activists announce plans to push for an initiative on the D.C. ballot that would legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons.
Dec. 8, 1997: The initiative fails when supporters are unable to muster enough signatures.
July 1998: Backers submit 32,000 signatures to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Aug. 6, 1998: Elections officials say the issue cannot appear on the ballot because of a dispute involving the validity of thousands of signatures. The initiative's proponents challenge the ruling in D.C. Superior Court.
Sept. 3, 1998: D.C. Superior Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle says elections officials erred in rejecting thousands of signatures. Officials announce that Initiative 59 will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Oct. 21, 1998: Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) attaches an amendment to the fiscal 1999 D.C. appropriations bill. The so-called Barr amendment would prohibit the District from spending money on any initiative that would legalize or reduce the penalties for users of marijuana. The measure passes along with the D.C. spending bill. As a result, elections officials say they cannot release or certify the results of the Initiative 59 vote.
Oct. 30, 1998: The initiative's supporters join with the American Civil Liberties Union and file suit in U.S. District Court.
Nov. 3, 1998: D.C. residents vote on Initiative 59. The outcome remains a secret; meanwhile, voters in five states pass similar initiatives.
Nov. 6, 1998: The D.C. government seeks to overturn the Barr amendment.
Dec. 17, 1998: U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts hears more than two hours of legal arguments on the issue, with the Justice Department arguing the case for Congress.
July 29, 1999: Barr proposes an amendment to the fiscal 2000 D.C. appropriations bill to prohibit the District from using any money to legalize or reduce the penalty for the possession, use or distribution of marijuana and other drugs. The House passes the bill, and Barr declares that the medical marijuana law will not take effect no matter how D.C. residents had voted.
Sept. 16, 1999: The Senate passes the D.C. appropriations bill, containing Barr's amendment. The White House threatens to veto the package.
Sept. 17, 1999: Roberts rules that the vote count can be released and certified. Barr says the results are irrelevant, but initiative supporters celebrate what they called "Day 319 of Democracy Held Hostage."
Sept. 20, 1999: D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics releases the vote total, showing the initiative passed by an overwhelming margin. Both sides begin girding for more battles in Congress.