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Marijuana debate smolders in court

Other jurisdictionsí laws blaze into effect while D.C. voters continue to wait

(Published April 5, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Five months after receiving public approval through referendum, laws legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes have taken effect in four states, but voters in the District are still waiting to find out if their votes on the subject will even count.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Richards has yet to issue his ruling on a lawsuit, argued Dec. 18, that pits the U.S. Department of Justice against the American Civil Liberties Union and the D.C. government, which are seeking release of the results of the Nov. 3 vote on legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana in the nationís capital. Congress barred the Districtís elections board from releasing or certifying the results. The ACLU filed suit against the elections board, but in an unusual move, the D.C. government joined the ACLU in the lawsuit to try to overturn the congressional gag order.

"Lots of decisions take more than three months," ACLU Legal Director Arthur Spitzer said. "But, in this particular case, I would say that this (lengthy delay) was a surprise."

Spitzer said he expected a decision to be handed down fairly quickly because Rich-ards agreed to expedite the hearing on the case.

"I think everyone expected a decision by the end of 1998 or the beginning of 1999," he said.

"In my world, this is taking forever," said Wayne Turner, head of the AIDS advocacy group ACT-UP Washington, who put the issue on the ballot. "Iím trying to cling to my faith in democracy."

Medical marijuana laws in Washington state and Oregon took effect in December and state health officials in Oregon will begin issuing registration cards to patients allowed to possess marijuana to alleviate symptoms of certain medical conditions in May. A similar law in Alaska took effect March 4, but health officials there are not yet accepting applications for a patient registry. In Arizona, the November referendum reinstated a law passed by voters in 1996 and the reinstatement has already taken effect.

The other state that had a ballot issue on the subject was Nevada, where voters approved a state constitutional amendment decriminalizing the possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Nevada law requires constitutional amendments be ap-proved with two consecutive elections, so voters need to approve the measure during the next general election for the amendment to take effect.

In March, D.C. City Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, wrote a letter to elections board chairman Benjamin F. Wilson requesting he release the results of the election to her in her capacity as chairman of the councilís Committee on Government Operations. The board denied her request, citing the pending lawsuit, a board spokesman said.

Spitzer noted that April 1 was the six-month point of the Barr amendment, which prohibits the District from spending money on the marijuana initiative. Spitzer said if a decision is not made before Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year, the lawsuit could be moot unless Congress chooses to renew the amendment for the next fiscal year.

Turner meanwhile said he is trying to get involved in other issues while the medical marijuana suit gets decided in court.

"Iím so sick of talking about medical marijuana," Turner said, adding he never expected the issue to drag on as long as it has. He currently is working to restore D.C.ís needle exchange program and increase the cityís funding for AIDS education and treatment programs.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator