Source: The Baltimore Sun
Copyright: 1998 by The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.
Pubdate: Thu, 5 Nov 1998
Author: Ellen Gamerman, Sun National Staff


Congress Barred Release Of Votes On Measure To Allow Medicinal Use 

WASHINGTON -- After casting their ballots on whether to legalize the use of
marijuana for medical treatment, district residents tuned to the local news
on election night to find out the results. That's when they saw the tally:
Zero "yes" votes. Zero "no" votes.

Zero votes, period.

How could this be, when thousands remembered voting on Initiative 59 that
very morning?

It turns out that Congress, which controls the inner workings of district
affairs, squelched the release of the results after one of its most
conservative members did not like the smell of the medical marijuana measure.

The results of a district referendum that very likely passed are now a
government secret. The final printed tally is sitting off-limits at the
D.C. Board of Elections, the numbers covered from prying eyes.

The D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a
Freedom of Information request to make the results public, while continuing
a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week to have the results of the
referendum recognized.

For now, however, the outcome of the medical marijuana vote remains hazy.

"I don't think there was ever a vote that the district could not make
public," says Kenneth McGhie, Elections Board general counsel, who this
week will file a request in federal District Court for instructions on what
the board should do next.

"I wasn't able to find anywhere else in the country where voters couldn't
see the results of a vote in an election."

The Clinton administration opposes medical marijuana use by the seriously
ill, but as this recent election shows, several states are trying to force
a change in national policy by legalizing it locally.

On Tuesday, voters in Oregon, Alaska, Nevada and Washington state approved
referendums decriminalizing marijuana for medical use. Arizona voters
Tuesday reaffirmed a similar measure after an attack by the state
Legislature. California voters approved their own proposal in 1996.

Rep. Bob Barr, a conservative Georgia Republican, got wind of the D.C.
referendum and won an amendment to the city's appropriations bill that
prohibits the district from using federal funds for any ballot initiative
that lessened the penalties for marijuana.

That was 13 days before the election -- not enough time to take the
question off the ballot.

So, the D.C. Elections Board kept the results secret, although an exit poll
by a group supporting the initiative showed 69 percent of voters supported
the measure.

Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the local ACLU, argues that Barr's
amendment is blatantly unconstitutional and advances a political agenda at
the expense of the district.

"They acted toward the district in a way they never, ever would think to
act toward their own constituents," says Spitzer. "No one in Congress would
ever think about trying to interfere in the content of an election in any
of the 50 states."

Barr has attacked the referendum as an effort to legalize mind-altering
drugs by using federal tax dollars earmarked for the city. In a statement
yesterday, he suggested the D.C. campaign sought to legalize marijuana for
more than just medical use.

"I will continue fighting to oppose any attempt to use federal funds
appropriated to the district to print or count ballots supporting the
legalization of marijuana, whether done under the guise of 'medical use' or
otherwise," the statement said.

The situation underscores the unique -- some say dysfunctional --
relationship between the district and Congress.

Because the city has only limited self-government, it is subject to
sweeping congressional oversight that allows lawmakers from far-flung
states to influence its day-to-day affairs. When Congress decided in 1992
that Washington should have a death penalty, local opponents only had 28
days to organize a referendum to defeat it. Ultimately, those opponents
were successful.

This time the referendum called for the district to allow AIDS, cancer and
other chronic pain sufferers to take marijuana.

The initiative allows for a "buyer's club" in the district, where patients
with doctors' recommendations could purchase marijuana.

Yet even if it turns out the voters passed the referendum, Congress can
easily block it. The referendum, like any other D.C. City Council bill,
must ultimately be approved by Congress, said Spitzer.

Some referendum opponents say the issue should be decided by medical
experts and the Food and Drug Administration, not by referendums that play
on sympathy for the ill and enfeebled.

"Why wouldn't marijuana go through the same process that aspirin does?"
asks Leigh Leventhal, spokeswoman for Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
"Nobody wants to see people suffering, and I think that's what people are
voting for on this issue."

In an earlier review, the FDA rejected the use of marijuana for medicinal
purposes, although new studies now under way may change that view.
Marijuana has been shown to ease symptoms of everything from cancer to
glaucoma to cerebral palsy to a simple case of the hiccups.

Brian Murphy, who suffers from complex migraine seizures, says a few puffs
of pot ease the numbness in his hands and tongue, as well as neck
discomfort. But those few puffs also prompted a police raid of his home and
landed him before a jury.

"They found me not guilty," says Murphy, 44, who will smoke no more than
one marijuana cigarette on his worst day. "Everybody keeps talking, 'Oh
you're just smoking joints.' But it's just three or four puffs. People live
in fear of getting caught for this. In reality, it is anything but a
- ---
Checked-by: Richard Lake