A federal law that prohibited District of Columbia residents from
proposing, running or voting on a ballot initiative to legalize medical
cannabis, has been overturned as an unconstitutional restriction on
political speech.

In 1998, 69 percent of District voters approved a measure to legalize the
medical use of marijuana. Congress responded with the so-called "Barr
Amendment," named for its sponsor, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA). The Barr Amendment
blocked the implementation of the initiative and prohibited the District
from spending appropriated federal funds to "enact or carry out" any law
that reduces criminal penalties for marijuana or any Schedule I controlled
substance.

Last December, the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, and
several individual plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the federal
government and the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE). They argued
that the Barr Amendment violated D.C. residents' First Amendment right to
utilize the District's ballot initiative process to engage in public debate
on a subject of fundamental importance.

Federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan agreed, and ruled March 28 that the Barr
Amendment effectively prohibited the plaintiffs from gathering signatures
to place another cannabis initiative on the ballot in November. "There can
be no doubt that the Barr Amendment restricts plaintiffs' First Amendment
right to engage in political speech," wrote Judge Sullivan.

Barr spoke out against the ruling and said the initiative was a backdoor
effort to usurp federal law. "Clearly, the court today has ignored the
constitutional right and responsibility of Congress to pass laws protecting
citizens from dangerous and addictive narcotics, and the right of Congress
to exert legislative control over the District of Columbia as the nation's
capital," said Barr in a statement. "This ballot initiative was not about
free speech, nor was the court correct in defining it as such. This
initiative was about opening the door to drug legalization, and whether
federal taxpayer dollars should be used to support a drug legalization agenda."

Barr has written to Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking the Justice
Department to appeal the court's decision. But Judge Sullivan permanently
enjoined the BOEE from applying the Barr Amendment to block a medical
cannabis initiative for the District proposed by the Marijuana Policy
Project (MPP).

"Because we won the lawsuit, we get to run a medical marijuana initiative
in Washington D.C. this year," says Robert Kampia, executive director of
the MPP and a plaintiff in the case. Given that 69 percent of D.C. voters
approved the 1998 measure that removed criminal penalties for medical
marijuana patients, Kampia believes a similar measure would win handily if
it were placed on the ballot in November. "We are conducting a ballot drive
starting tomorrow and we want to spark a congressional debate on medical
marijuana because we know that Congress is not going to allow a local
medical marijuana law without a fight," said Kampia.

Joyce Nalepka, president of Drug Free Kids: America's Challenge, a
Maryland-based group that resists medical cannabis initiatives, wants that
fight to continue. She is dismayed that the Barr Amendment was overturned
and charges that the MPP is waging a "very professional misinformation
campaign." "Bob was one of the few government officials who had the
backbone to help kids in the District by keeping it from being even more
saturated by marijuana and other drugs and letting people know that
marijuana is not medicine," says Nalepka, who believes medical cannabis
patients should be prosecuted under federal law. "They should be charged,
they should enforce the law, it is there to protect the safety and health
of the rest of us. I don't want people tooling down the street after they
have smoked a joint for a backache."

Voters in eight states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine,
Nevada, Oregon and Washington have already expressed their opinion on
medical cannabis and approved laws that remove criminal penalties for
seriously ill patients who use and grow marijuana with the approval of
their physicians. The MPP recently commissioned a poll by the Lucas
Organization that surveyed four of these states. The poll indicates that
there is stronger bipartisan support for medical cannabis laws now than
when they were passed. This support ranges from 74.3 percent of polled
voters in Alaska to 78.6 percent in Nevada.

The poll also found support for medical marijuana initiatives in six
additional states that do not have such laws -- Arizona, Montana, Nebraska,
North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Those who strongly supported, or
somewhat supported, laws that ban arrest and penalties for medical cannabis
patients ranged from 63.3 percent in North Dakota up to 72.3 percent in
Arizona.

Medical marijuana legislation is already underway in two states. On March
25, the Maryland House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved H.B. 1222, the
Darrell Putman Compassionate Use Act, which removes criminal penalties for
the medical use of marijuana. A full Committee and Senate vote on the bill
is expected the week of April 1. On March 15, the Vermont House of
Representatives became the first Republican-controlled state legislative
chamber in the country to initiate and pass medical marijuana legislation
(H. 645) which allows patients with their doctors' approval to use, possess
and grow cannabis for medical purposes.

A medical cannabis bill proposed in the Connecticut House of
Representatives died in the judiciary committee in March and is not
expected to be revived this year. A campaign is still underway to gather
signatures to put a medical cannabis bill on the ballot in Arizona and
Kampia says he is confident that it will succeed. He says the MPP is also
hoping to run medical marijuana initiatives in Montana and North Dakota
this year and in the remaining polled states by 2004.

"Our strategy is that we are hoping to run medical marijuana initiatives in
all six of these states in the next two years," said Kampia. "That would
double the number of states with medical marijuana laws from eight to
sixteen." The Lucas poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 voters, also
indicated bipartisan support for initiatives that would make medical
marijuana distribution and sales legal under state law. No existing medical
cannabis initiatives have yet tackled this issue. Support for such a ballot
measure ranged from 51.4 percent in Nebraska to 67.9 percent in Nevada. A
proposed initiative that would require state governments to grow and
distribute medical marijuana to seriously ill patients was even more
popular attracting the support of 55.9 percent of Nebraska voters and 73.4
percent of the voters in Nevada.

Nalepka dismisses these figures and suggests that surveys of this sort can
be manipulated to produce the desired results. She points to a statement
from the National Institute of Heath that people with HIV and others whose
immune systems are impaired should avoid marijuana use. "The most dangerous
thing that is happening is that kids are being misled to believe that
marijuana is somehow helpful," says Nalepka. "It has been known for a long
time that it damages the immune system."

Ethan Russo M.D., a neurologist from Missoula, Montana, has sparred with
Nalepka over these assertions. He points out the Institute of Medicine
recommended that cannabis be made available to people with HIV, cancer and
other serious illnesses. Russo also notes that the Food and Drug
Administration has recognized medical indications for cannabis by virtue of
its approval as an Orphan Drug for treatment of AIDS wasting syndrome. The
FDA approved Russo's Investigational New Drug application for cannabis in
migraine treatment, but the process was derailed by the refusal of the
National Institute on Drug Abuse to provide the drug for the trial.

Russo says he is encouraged by the Lucas poll figures, which indicate that
over 65 percent of voters in Montana support removing threat of arrest and
penalties for seriously ill patients who grow and use medical marijuana
with the approval of their physicians. "I would love to see it happen, it
would make my life and that of my patients easier," says Russo, who says he
advises his patients about cannabis but cannot recommend it under existing
laws. "If you ask me if it helps, I say yes, for a wide variety of
conditions. I know that there are a good number of patients out there who
are interested in pursuing the matter."

In Vermont, where medical cannabis legislation is coming up for a Committee
and Senate floor vote at the end of April, the local law enforcement
community has chosen not to pass judgment on whether medical cannabis
should be available. "That is not my place at all," says Steve McQueen, the
police chief of Winooski, Vermont, who represents the Vermont Chiefs of
Police Association on legislative issues. "It is the medical community that
needs to debate these issues and the legislature needs to be comfortable
with that debate."

McQueen helped the state's judiciary committee review the legislation and
point out potential problems from an enforcement perspective. The bill
permits patients to possess immature and mature cannabis plants with a
maximum yield of three ounces. McQueen is still concerned about determining
maturity and yield and potential liability issues for doctors. He is also
concerned that the legislation conflicts with federal drug laws that can
still be imposed on Vermonters. But overall, he's pleased with provisions
of the law that require cannabis patients, their caregivers and their
doctors to be certified with the Vermont Department of Public Safety and
listed in the Vermont state police database. Patients possessing more than
permitted amounts can be charged with felonies and doctors who issue
recommendations without thorough examinations can loose their licenses.

"I was quite impressed with how they solved this," said McQueen. "I am not
ashamed of my role to make this process work. If the legislature decides to
make [medical cannabis] available, it is my job as a police professional to
show them how to get there legally and make it enforceable."

- -----------

Ann Harrison is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Pubdate: Mon, 01 Apr 2002
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2002 Independent Media Institute
Contact: http://www.alternet.org/discuss/
Website: http://www.alternet.org/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1451
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Author: Ann Harrison