Medical marijuana could soon be reality in D.C.
More than a decade ago, Steve Michael and Wayne Turner decided the citizens of the District of Columbia deserved the right to use medical marijuana, and that they would lead the fight to get it. They had a decision to make: Start lobbying District lawmakers to take up the cause, or take the question straight to the people, via a ballot initiative.
They decided in the power of direct democracy. What followed was one of the great triumphs of grassroots politicking in District history—and one of the greatest congressional insults ever leveled against home rule.
“We thought it would be so much harder for Congress to overturn a vote of the people,” Turner remembers. “How naive were we.”
Michael and Turner, veteran AIDS activists on a shoestring budget, started collecting petition signatures in 1997, hoping to get the question on the 1998 ballot. Their first effort fell short by a few hundred signatures. They tried again, starting in early 1998, and again the Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that they didn’t have enough John Hancocks. But they sued, successfully, and got the measure on the 1998 ballot.
That’s when the naiveté came in.
That October, some two weeks before the vote, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) added a rider to the District’s annual budget appropriation, saying money couldn’t even be spent on counting the votes on the initiative, let alone allowing the law to take effect. A year later, a federal judge ruled that the votes could be counted—just shy of 70 percent of voters had endorsed the measure—but, with at least one house of Congress belonging to Republicans, the funding restriction has remained tacked onto every District budget since.
Until this year: On June 25, the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing the District, chaired by New York Democrat Jose Serrano, removed the Barr amendment. On Tuesday evening, the full appropriations committee beat back an attempt by Missouri Republican Jo Ann Emerson to put it back on.
The bill still has to survive a floor vote in the House and several rounds of consideration in the Senate and in conference committee.
In years past, that’d be way too many hoops for any soft-on-pot legislation. Yet the Marijuana Policy Project’s Aaron Houston, the only Hill lobbyist working full time on marijuana-related issues, says he “definitely feel[s] less jittery about this bill.”
If the rider rides into the sunset, the medical marijuana issue would end up back in the hands of District lawmakers. What exactly would happen is up for debate: The reigning school of thought is that the Barr amendment essentially placed Initiative 59 in a deep freeze—the votes were counted and certified by the elections board, per the federal ruling, but city officials were still barred from expending any resources to move forward with it. So, the thinking goes, the bill should be able to be thawed out, so to speak, sent to Congress for its usual 30-day review, and become law.
Brian Flowers, general counsel to the D.C. Council, says there is “a very real possibility” that once the president signs a rider-free District budget bill, the law can simply be sent to Congress and then become law. No new initiative necessary.
Even in that scenario, the District body politic would have plenty of opportunities to weigh in. Flowers says there’s a possibility that the council would have to appropriate money to put the initiative into effect, and then there’s the simple fact that no District ballot initiative is out of the reach of the council: If lawmakers don’t like it, they can strike it down, much as they did to the term-limit statute passed by 62 percent of voters in 1994.
But fat chance of that happening: Even in 1998, a majority of councilmembers came out publicly in support of the medical marijuana law, not to mention Mayor Anthony A. Williams (though his police chief, Charles Ramsey, was against it). And since then, the D.C. Council’s become no less liberal, and medical marijuana’s become no more controversial, either nationally or locally.
Not only have 12 states passed medical marijuana laws since D.C. took its vote, but the political climate surrounding the issue has chilled significantly. Houston points out that President Bill Clinton was “terrible” on this issue, with his drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, coming out against the D.C. initiative in Op-Eds and on talk shows. “Clinton didn’t shy away from any opportunity to grandstand and look tough on crime and look tough on drugs,” he says.
Moreover, you don’t have a Republican ideologue like Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook overseeing the District budget these days—that’s a guy who once asked, “Where do you draw the line?...If you say it’s OK for D.C. to legalize marijuana, then what’s next? Legalizing cocaine? Or heroin? Or perhaps rape and murder?” You do have an attorney general, Eric Holder, who is not only a creature of local Washington but has vowed to end federal prosecutions of medical marijuana in states where it has been legalized.
Oh, and there’s this delicious fact: The Barr amendment has long outlasted the antidrug bent of its namesake. Back in 2007, Barr renounced his crusading and actually began lobbying for looser marijuana laws.
Locally, don’t expect much problem. Seventy percent in 1998 is at least 70 percent in 2009.
As for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, his record of public comment on the issue is thin. In 2000, Fenty the council candidate vowed in a Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance questionnaire to oppose a council bill upping the penalties for marijuana possession and distribution, based on the implications for medical pot users.
If Initiative 59 were do go straight into law, the Fenty administration would be required to do a number of things. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would be required to license nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations “for the purpose of cultivating, purchasing, and distributing marijuana” for medical marijuana patients. The health department would have to come up with a plan to get medical marijuana in the hands of patients in Medicaid or government-funded HIV/AIDS programs. And the mayor himself, along with the council, would have to “deliver a copy of this act to the President and the Congress to express the sense of the people of the District of Columbia that the Federal government must develop a system to distribute marijuana to patients who need it for medical purposes.”
All that surrounds a bigger question: What would medical marijuana look like in the District of Columbia? In most places that marijuana’s been legalized for medicinal purposes, possession limits are strict—rarely more than an ounce of two at a time, and the supply is tightly controlled. Not so, of course, in California, which passed the country’s first and best-known medical marijuana ballot measure in 1996 (the District’s was second) and has since developed by far the most elaborate infrastructure, with a wide network of dispensaries and doctors willing to recommend cannabis for a range of maladies.
The California model is closest to the decriminalization ideal that many marijuana activists aspire to—including many of the groups that jumped into the 1998 fight and pushed an unsuccessful repeat initiative in 2001—but Turner’s not one of them. He says the idea was solely to help the chronically and seriously ill—particularly late-stage AIDS patients like Michael, his partner, who used cannabis in the last weeks of his life to try to keep food in his failing body.
Michael died in May 1998, weeks before Turner turned in the Initiative 59 petitions.
“The vision was not to help people with hangnails. This is for sick people,” Turner says. “The sponsor of this didn’t spend the last weeks of his life” on the initiative campaign, he says, “so people could have fun.”
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Clip 10: Recorded argument between Watts-Brighthaupt and Barry