D.C. won't give results of marijuana referendum Congress barred release of votes on measure to allow medicinal use

Election 1998 : Nation

November 05, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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 DTC 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 crime."

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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