More MS news articles for April 2002

Court says D.C. has right to vote on medical marijuana

Also, Maryland and Vermont houses pass bills that would remove criminal penalties for patients using pot for medical reasons

April 22/29, 2002
By Tanya Albert, AMNews staff

Washington, D.C., residents may get another chance to vote on whether they want to decriminalize the medical use of marijuana.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently ruled that Congress' attempt to stop district residents from voting on the issue is unconstitutional.

Congress, which appropriates the money the district uses to run elections, passed an act that said the funds couldn't be used to "enact or carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties" for schedule I narcotics, including marijuana. But the court said that measure hinders political expression and thus infringes on voters' First Amendment rights.

"It's the equivalent of saying we can have elections in D.C., but we can only elect Republicans," said Rob Kampia, Marijuana Policy Project's executive director. "We plan to hit the streets at the end of May to gather the 16,000 signatures we need to get on the November ballot."

At press time, the federal government had not decided whether it would appeal the court decision.

Marijuana Policy Project joined with a physician and a patient with multiple sclerosis to challenge the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics and others on the constitutionality of Congress' authority to decide on which issues district voters could cast their opinions.

Eight states have laws that allow the medicinal use of marijuana with physician approval.

The Medical Society of the District of Columbia does not have an official position on medical marijuana, but when a referendum went to district voters in 1998, the group said it opposed the issue being decided by referendum. The society also said it did not approve of the federal government interfering with Washington, D.C.'s ability to self-govern.

"If medical marijuana is to be decided in D.C., we believe a more deliberate process involving the D.C. Council is a more appropriate way to go, so the issue can be decided on the science," said MSDC Executive Director Edward Shanbacker.

District voters in 1998 passed a referendum that decriminalized medical marijuana, but Congress wouldn't allow the law to take effect.

As organizers again take the issue to voters in November, Kampia said he expected a referendum to pass with at least 65% of the vote. "The real battle is getting Congress not to overturn it," he said.

The district would not be the first locality in the nation to decriminalize medicinal marijuana. Eight states have laws that allow seriously ill patients to grow and use marijuana for medical reasons if a physician approves it. Those states are Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Washington and Maine.

And two state legislatures have been active on the issue this year. In March, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill that would have removed criminal penalties for patients who use medical marijuana. But the bill died in the Senate in April.

In Vermont, the House passed a bill that would allow patients to grow marijuana for medical purposes if they have their physician's approval. That law would sunset in 2006.

The Vermont Senate and governor would have to approve the bill before it could become law. Kampia said he thought that the bill had the support to pass the Senate, but that it could be difficult to get the signature of Gov. Howard Dean, MD.

Copyright 2002 American Medical Association