Voters in several states, D.C. favoring medicinal marijuana Affirmative action, gay marriage also among issues on state ballots

October 27, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With a week to go, polls show that voters in at least four states and Washington, D.C., are poised to allow marijuana to be used legally as a medicine -- ignoring the years-long and escalating opposition of the Clinton administration.

"It certainly is plausible that we can win everything" in this year's balloting on the issue, said Dave Fratello, a Californian whose organization, Americans for Medical Rights, organizes medical marijuana initiatives around the country.

The group's private polling, Fratello said yesterday, squares with newspaper polls showing the measure ahead across the board, with the favorable numbers rising toward 60 percent.

With a ruling expected any day on the fate of the measure in Colorado -- possibly making it the fifth state and the sixth jurisdiction to vote on the issue Nov. 3 -- medical marijuana advocates show no sign of surrendering to the federal government. Federal anti-drug officials, cracking down even harder as a result of the success of two such ballot measures in 1996, are not relenting, either.

The issue is among the hottest topics of about 230 proposals on statewide ballots in 42 states next Tuesday that will also ask voters to register their views on affirmative action, same-sex marriage and doctor-assisted suicide.

Marijuana has been banned from the federal list of legal drugs for a quarter-century, on the theory that it is a dangerous narcotic that has only doubtful value as a medicine. Repeatedly, federal officials have rebuffed efforts to relax that ban.

But, after voters in Arizona and California approved marijuana-as-medicine ballot proposals two years ago, the administration has intensified its challenge. It has succeeded now in closing down all but two marijuana "buyers' clubs" in California, and it has actively supported state legislative efforts to repeal the Arizona initiative.

Advocates of the practice, though, are striking back -- directly in Arizona, and with new initiatives in a widening campaign that will continue on into 1999 and 2000, with petition-signing drives already under way in at least two more states.

This year, voters in Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C., also will vote on the question -- as will voters in Colorado, if the proposal survives a late court challenge.

In Arizona, the state legislature has nullified the voters' 1996 initiative on marijuana use by decreeing that the policy could not take effect unless the Clinton administration approves the practice -- a contingency that almost certainly won't occur.

On next week's ballot, Arizona voters will be asked whether they want to override the state legislature on the issue.

Arizonans also will vote on a broader proposal, Measure 105, barring the legislature from repealing any voter initiative in the future.

The Arizona developments typify a continuing phenomenon in the field of direct democracy through citizen initiatives: frustration over what legislatures or courts do with issues that seem popular at the polls. That frustration often motivates sponsors of ballot measures.

Such frustration is vivid this year in Michigan, over the issue of assisted suicide. That is where Dr. Jack Kevorkian has single-handedly given the issue prominence by aiding in at least 100 suicides.

The doctor, who regards himself as the leader of a crusade, has been the target of four criminal prosecutions, but three resulted in not-guilty verdicts, one in a mistrial.

Separately, the state legislature repeatedly has sought to curb assisted suicides.

Now, supporters of assisted suicide are seeking to put voters clearly on record in favor of that practice, at least in cases of terminally ill patients who are competent to make that choice.

If Proposition B passes, Michigan would become only the second state to permit assisted suicide; Oregon was the first, with voters there favoring the practice first in 1994. In Alaska and Hawaii, where state courts appear ready to allow homosexual marriage, opponents of that policy are using the ballot to try to bar gays from being wed. Measure 2 in Alaska would amend the state constitution to define marriage as only the union of a man and a woman. Question 2 on Hawaii's ballot would give the legislature permission to impose such a ban.

Washington state voters also will be acting on another deeply controversial question: Do they want to imitate California's first-in-the-nation ban on affirmative action in state jobs, education and contracts?

In Washington, Initiative 200 is worded almost identically to California's Proposition 209, adopted by its voters in 1996 by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin. Recent polling in Washington suggests that the measure there is favored by about the same margin.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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