It was June 1998 when Wayne Turner stood outside the gates of the White House
with the corpse of his lover, Steve Michael. Turner reached into the open
casket to stroke the long mane of his partner's hair and then shouted about
the ways in which President Bill Clinton had betrayed him and other AIDS
The event was ostensibly a memorial service for Michael, but it was also
Turner's most dramatic effort to draw attention to Initiative 59 -- a ballot
measure that intended to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana in the
District of Columbia.
That June day was one of the movement's better moments. DC councilmembers
and political rainmakers elbowed each other for room at the podium. Hundreds
of activists from all over the northeastern United States marched down
Pennsylvania Avenue. The media ate it up.
Michael had died the previous week from the "wasting syndrome" associated
with AIDS. It's a tortuous way to die -- a combination of nausea, diarrhea,
and a complete lack of appetite that prompts a slow deterioration. Wasting
syndrome is just the sort of illness that supporters of medical marijuana say
that the drug alleviates. They assert that pot settles the stomach, helps
people eat food, and dulls pain.
The publicity obtained by the memorial service/protest for Michael helped get
ACT UP advocate Turner's sputtering, yearlong push to place Initiative 59 on
DC's 1998 ballot on track. It also represented the beginning of the high
water mark for the District's medical-marijuana movement. After three
lawsuits, two 17,000 signature petition drives, and Michael's death,
Initiative 59 not only made it onto the 1998 ballot but also passed
overwhelmingly, winning 69 percent of the overall vote and a majority in
every voting precinct and all eight wards.
As 2002 dawns, those heady days of a drug-reform ballot victory in the
nation's capital seem long past. On Dec. 18, the US District Court for DC
accepted the latest filing from patients in the District who want permission
to smoke pot. The lawsuit, filed by the Marijuana Policy Project's (MPP) Rob
Kampia, a District resident; Candida Fraze, who lives with multiple
sclerosis, and local HIV specialist Larry Bruni seeks to lift the current
congressional ban on the city's ability to vote on medical marijuana.
Standing in the wind in front of the US Courthouse that morning, Kampia
portrayed the new lawsuit, which petitions for a new local medical-marijuana
referendum, as the first play in a dramatic scenario to bypass Congress and
get medical marijuana into the hands of those who want it. But even Kampia,
whose defense of drug-law reform has become a familiar presence on the
national scene, didn't seem completely confident in the new tactic.
Any trepidation proponents may feel is rooted in a sustained series of
defeats for the movement in DC -- an overwhelming victory at the ballot
turned into not only a defeat but also a symbol of District residents'
powerlessness in the face of the US Congress.
But one thing the people of DC have learned in the four-plus-year battle over
their right to let sick people choose pot as a palliative is they're nowhere
near the end of the game.
Even the irascible Turner concedes that point. "Unfortunately," he sighs,
"it's a long-term fight." But it's a fight Turner warns will be even
prolonged if Kampia's legal strategy to force a new initiative goes forward.
If there's a villain in the battle to allow medicinal marijuana's use in the
District, its Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA). Before the 1998 election victory, Barr
led the fight in Congress to attach an amendment to that year's DC budget,
forbidding the use of District funds to "conduct any ballot initiative which
seeks to legalize or otherwise reduce the penalties" for the consumption,
possession, or distribution of marijuana. The law didn't pass in time to
keep Initiative 59 off the ballot, but the city's Board of Elections and
Ethics ruled that the congressional rider did preclude certification of the
Turner promptly sued, challenging the amendment as an attack on free speech.
Turner argued that Congress could not forbid the reduction of penalties for
violation of drug laws without also forbidding their increase. Though many
constitutional scholars agreed with Turner that Barr's legislative scribes
had written a flawed amendment, political observers knew the seemingly
indefatigable ACT UP agitator had nonetheless crapped out in the battle over
The reasoning behind this conclusion was ruthlessly political. Even if the
federal courts nixed Barr's amendment, Initiative 59 would still need the
highly unlikely approval of the US Congress to become DC law. The
possibility that Barr would simply rewrite his poorly worded amendment and
place it before Congress also loomed. Medical marijuana, it seemed, had gone
the way of domestic partnerships and needle-exchange programs -- progressive
District laws placed on the books but left unimplemented because of the
objections of social conservatives on the Hill. The city's politicians and
activists moved on to the next burning issue.
Everyone except Turner, that is. He seized on the medical-marijuana cause's
alignment with the home-rule movement (in which he had long been active) and
hunkered down for an annual fight against all congressional riders attached
to the DC budget. Turner says he's waiting patiently for enough sentiment on
the Hill to defeat Barr's 1998 amendment, and he notes that it took nine
years of lobbying before Congress finally allowed the city's domestic
partnership law to go through, in November 2001.
Kampia, however, believes that anew legal challenge can speed the process up.
Ruling on Turner's original lawsuit in September 199, after 319 days, US
District Judge Richard Roberts sidestepped the constitutional questions
raised by Turner's challenge. Roberts ruled that the Barr amendment forbade
the use of funds to conduct the initiative in the first place but that the
amendment had no bearing on the certification process. Thus, the votes could
be officially counted and certified, but they didn't mean anything. The
amendment's impact on free speech was rendered moot.
Judge Roberts' lengthy deliberation gave Barr time to go back and fix his
mistake--sort of. His amendment to the fiscal year 2002 DC budget bill kept
the questionable 1998 language, but it also added another clause explicitly
blocking Initiative 59 from becoming law. Barr's amendment has been attached
to each subsequent DC budget bill before Congress.
Some argue that Barr's patch still leaves a glaring loophole in his
amendment. Kampia's logic behind filing the new lawsuit is that a federal
court will overturn the first clause of Barr's annual amendment and allow
activists to place a new, but essentially identical, initiative on next
"This is part of our national strategy. Eight states currently allow the
medical use of marijuana," Kampia explains, "yet we can't get Congress to
take this issue seriously."
In Turner's view, Kampia's folding of the District's medical marijuana
efforts into a national strategy illustrates its inherent flaw.
Turner believes that the 107th Congress is much too hostile to welcome such a
challenge, and he warns that the MPP and the national drug reform
organizations will just make things worse locally if they push too hard to
advance a national debate.
"This will have the effect of Congress going back and improving the
language," Turner says. "We worked so hard on this. I don't want to see it
killed off by pushing it up to a very bad Congress and going down in a ball
Turner argues that ignoring the local effects of such a strategy means that
the MPP and other groups are using DC's patients as pawns. Despite his own
central role in the campaign to date, Turner observes, the MPP didn't even
tell him about the suit until five days before filing it.
"This is a tremendous waste of resources," Turner says of the MPP suit. "We
have a lot of really good groups working in a concerted effort on the issue
of these riders being imposed by Congress. That's where the fight is." In
July,, in fact, Turner talked California-based Americans for Medical Rights,
which has financed and organized most of the successfully medical-marijuana
initiatives around the country, out of attempting just what MPP has now begun.
For its part, the MPP says that it kept the issue quiet so as not to tip off
the government. Kampia argues that the new legal challenge is merely the
next step in the fight. "The Marijuana Policy Project and other so-called
national groups have tried (lobbying Congress)," Kampia explains, "and we
failed. So rather than beating our heads up against the wall, we figured
we'd try other things, too."
The tug of war between Turner and Kampia illustrates a fault line not only in
the movement to bring medical marijuana to the masses, but in the District's
home-rule battle as well.
Just as the debate over the medical use of marijuana has been caught up on
the front line of the national drug war, it has also been alternately
embraced and ignored by home-rule activists. A Washington Post editorial
penned at the time of the 1998 elections summed up the perspective of most
observers, stating, "The immediate issue is not whether District residents
favor or oppose Initiative 59 but rather their right now denied by Congress
to express their views on the measure."
Past the politics--local and national--are patients such as Fraze, who sees
the issue purely in terms of medical marijuana's ability to relieve their
Fraze was diagnosed with relapsing/remitting MS in 1993. As she describes
it, this illness could be dubbed "invisible MS," because her condition
worsens with each relapse, Fraze shows few outward signs of deterioration.
"People who don't know me very well don't see my very painful symptoms," she
explains. But as se slowly makes her way to the press conference announcing
her participation in the MPP lawsuit, carefully measuring out each step in
order to minimize the joint pain that accompanies her motions, Fraze's MS
seems visible enough.
Fraze's anger overtakes her otherwise unassuming demeanor as she talks about
the struggle with Congress over the issue. She shakes perceptibly, tossing
out words including "archaic" and "compassion."
The scientific community is more of less evenly divided on marijuana's
medical value. There is general acceptance that the drug can help patients
manage a number of debilitating symptoms. But disagreement enters on the
question of how much harm medical marijuana causes in the meantime.
Marijuana smoke cases all the same problems as cigarette smoke, and some
experts say that it causes even more damage. There are also concerns, though
less significant, about the long- and short-term psychological side effects
of marijuana. Thus far, the National Institutes of Health's officials
position is that more research is needed, particularly on safer delivery
mechanisms for the drug.
Fraze has smoked marijuana to deal with her pain in the past, but she found
the risky process of acquiring it illegally was more than she could deal
with. When the local medical-marijuana campaign first began, there was an
established underground "buyers club," where people like Fraze could get the
The person who ran it, however, was felled by AIDS only a few months after
Michael's death.. When Judge Roberts inconclusive decision on Initiative 59
made the long-term outcome of the struggle clear, another group of patients
banded together to create a similar infrastructure. One persons buys large
quantities, about 2 to 4 pounds a week, and distributes it at cost to a
network of patient-dealers. Those individuals, most of whom deliberately do
not know one another, then also sell it at cost to their circle of friends.
This way, patients can get an ounce that would cost around $400 o the street
for between $75 and $125.
John (not his real name) is among the second tier of distributors. He says
he sells to approximately 20 other patients, mostly people living with AIDS
whom he has met in support groups over the years. John and his partner
tested positive for HIV in 1988. At that time, he was a leader in his faith
community, working on political causes through his denomination's national
office. When he tested positive, he began pushing other religious leaders to
advocate on behalf of people with AIDS.
John's first experience with medical marijuana came I the early 90's, when
his partner developed AIDS-related cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy.
The associated nausea made eating nearly impossible. The partner ultimately
died in 1993, but ot from wasting. "He tried all the other medications,"
John recalls, "and nothing else worked. With marijuana, he was able to
maintain some weight."
When it comes to cannabinoids, the active ingredients in marijuana, "all the
other medications" amounts to a pill called Marinol, which is derived from
cannabis. John and other patients say the problem with Marinol is its
inflexibility. A small dose leaves patients feeling the effects for ours,
and for many of the people with AIDS who take Marinol to stimulate the
appetite, its potency makes it difficult for them to endure the subsequent
fasting required by their AIDS-drug regimen. Others complain that Marinol
impairs their functioning at things, such as driving, that their pain
prevented them from doing in the first place.
This was John's experience when he developed wasting syndrome, in 1995. "The
advantage of medical marijuana," he argues, "is that you can control the
dose. Often, with just half a cookie if you're using baked goods, or if
you're smoking, with a couple of tokes on a bowl or a hit on a joint, who
will be able to eat a meal. And then after you eat, you come down and you
can function. On Marinol, you cannot function."
John has continued to use marijuana to manage the nausea and lack of appetite
that his present AIDS medications cause. The graying, clean-cut 49 year old
hardly fits the stealth drug warrior image. He's even given up AIDS
advocacy, preferring to focus on leading his support group and serving as a
deacon in his church. Still, John considers his buyers club to be a form of
"I had to do something," he explains, showing an anger that echoes that of
Fraze at her press conference. "Even though its illegal, I was tired of
seeing the people I came into contact with risk their lives by purchasing it
on the street, in the dead of the night risking arrest on the street, risking
mugging on the street."
Some in the medical marijuana advocacy community fear that obtaining the drug
is about to get much more risky. With a few notable exceptions, patients
using medical marijuana in DC simply weren't pursued by law enforcement under
the tenure of former US Attorney for the District of Columbia, Wilma Lewis.
Asked about this enforcement policy, US Attorney's Office Chief of Staff
Channing Phillips quickly notes that it wasn't because Lewis didn't prosecute
those cases; there just weren't any arrests. But Phillips concedes that the
office wasn't pushing local police to make such arrests.
Turner fears this posture will change under the leadership of President
George W. Bush's appointee to the post, Roscoe Howard.
Phillips tries to console, "There's no reason to expect change," he insists.
But he also acknowledges that the office does "take instruction from the
top." At the top of the Bush law-enforcement chain are Drug Enforcement
Agency head Asa Hutchinson and US Attorney General John Ashcroft, both of
whom have spoken out strongly against allowing the medical use of marijuana.
To Kampia, this means the medical marijuana movement can't afford to spend
the nine years it took to get DC's domestic partnership law through Congress
on this issue.. But Congress aside, Kampia's plan faces serious hurdles even
if the ban is overturned. To qualify for the November ballot, his initiative
would have to be turned into the Board of Elections with 17,000 signatures by
mid-May. Even with a quick ruling from the court, that would not be an easy
feat. Turner says that he had to collect nearly double the required number
of signatures -- more than 32,000--before he found 17,000 valid ones.
"This is an example of people coming to DC and using it as a national
platform," Turner charges, "which in and of itself is not a bad thing. But I
just don't think it's in the long-term best interest of the patients of DC."