HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Medical Marijuana Initiatives Shift The Front Of The
Pubdate: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) 
Section: Opinion
Copyright: 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Mike Gray
Note: Printed in the Inquirer: Mike Gray, author of Drug Crazy, is on the
board of directors of Common Sense for Drug Policy.

Medical marijuana initiatives shift the front of the drug war

By Mike Gray The earthquake that rocked the Republican Party this month
also jolted the foundations of another prominent ideological temple: the
federal drug war establishment.

In nine separate ballots in six states and the District of Columbia, voters
ignored the advice of former presidents and high government officials,
opting instead for the most significant challenge to drug war orthodoxy
since President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to decriminalize marijuana
in 1977.

For 25 years, the government has maintained that marijuana is so dangerous
we couldn't even talk about it. Now the issue is on the table, like it or
not, and if it turns out that marijuana is a medicine instead of the
devil's handmaiden, public support for arresting nonmedical users will
begin to erode.

Over the strenuous objection of politicians and lawmakers of every
persuasion, voters in Alaska, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Washington
state and the District of Columbia decided that it's OK for sick people to
smoke marijuana. As if to make sure the message was understood, several of
the most outspoken foes of medical marijuana had their hats handed to them
on a platter. California Attorney General Dan Lungren battled tooth and
nail against this idea when his fellow Californians kicked off the revolt
two years ago, but he found himself cast as the heavy in a war against
cancer patients. It contributed to the ultimately fatal image problems of
his gubernatorial campaign.

The drug warriors clearly understand this is a defining moment, but they
are in a tight spot. Two years ago, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House
drug czar, led a frontal attack on California's medical-marijuana
initiative, Proposition 215 ("Cheech and Chong medicine," he called it),
but his take-no-prisoners assault apparently backfired, and it passed with
room to spare.

This time McCaffrey maintained a lower profile, avoiding any direct
engagement with the other side. Though he lost every battle in the
anti-marijuana campaign, he did manage to keep the war off the front page.

The urgency of this confrontation for both sides is demonstrated by the
back-door effort to keep the issue from even coming to a vote wherever
possible. When medical marijuana qualified for the ballot in the District
of Columbia, North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth said, "I'd do anything I
could to block it," and he did. But even taking the unprecedented step of
forbidding local officials from counting the votes could not keep the lid
on. Exit polls showed that the initiative had been approved in D.C. by a
ratio of 2 to 1. So the issue will undoubtedly return to the nation's
capital, but Faircloth will not. He lost to a moderate Democrat.

Officials in Colorado similarly tried to prevent a vote on that state's
medical-marijuana initiative. At the last minute, they decided that the
measure had not qualified even though the initiative already was on the
ballot. But the voters voted anyway, and medical marijuana finished with a
14-point lead.

In states in which the vote was unimpeded, the spread was even more
impressive. Washington state's medical-marijuana initiative not only won by
a landslide, it also led in every county -- which means that every member
of the Washington congressional delegation from Spokane to Cape Flattery is
from a district that voted for medical marijuana.

But nowhere was the battle more clearly drawn than in Arizona. Two years
ago, 65 percent of Arizona voters passed a medical-marijuana initiative --
only to have it thrown back in their faces by the state legislature. Under
pressure from the White House, the state nullified the will of the voters.

Officials convinced themselves that the public had been duped by clever
advertising. But you don't stiff 65 percent of the electorate without
paying a price down the line, and this time the voters not only underscored
their original intention, they also passed a second law that severely
trimmed the legislature's power to do anything about it. This time there
was no talk about who had been duped.

The long-term problem for the drug warriors was most visible in the erosion
of support in the state of Oregon. Medical marijuana wasn't the main issue
there. Possession of an ounce or less has been virtually legal since 1973.
But the state legislature, in a classic misreading of the public mood,
decided to outlaw the weed once and for all. They placed a measure on the
ballot that would have restored criminal penalities for any amount of
marijuana, and it went down in flames, 2-1.

The aftershocks from these votes could have profound implications for the
future of the drug war itself. As author Dan Baum noted in his 1996
critique, Smoke and Mirrors, if you take marijuana out of the equation, the
number of so-called serious drug users drops from 13 million to 3 million,
and the drug war shrinks from a cabinet-level jihad to a sideshow.

To maintain its $50-billion-a-year effort, the government must defeat
medical marijuana at all costs. The current strategy is to ignore these
storm clouds and hope they blow away. But if this latest referendum is a
clue, they will have to stick their heads in the sand more deeply.
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Checked-by: Richard Lake