- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

D.C. medical marijuana advocates said yesterday that they had been told they submitted enough signatures to put before voters a measure that would legalize marijuana for seriously ill people, but city election officials warned that a pending court case could keep the initiative off the ballot.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics "called us on Monday and told us, 'Congratulations, you're going to be on the ballot,'" said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the District-based Marijuana Police Project.

Officials with the elections board confirmed that the project submitted enough valid signatures to put the initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot. However, they said they won't know until the end of this month whether the medical marijuana initiative will be put before voters.

"As of now, it's qualified to be on the ballot, but it could still be pulled off because there is an appeal pending in federal court," said Kenneth J. McGhie, general counsel for the elections board.

At issue is a court case prompted by a medical marijuana measure on the ballot in 1998. An amendment to the 1999 D.C. appropriations bill barred the District from counting and certifying the ballots. The project filed a lawsuit against the D.C. and federal governments, arguing that the amendment was unconstitutional, and in March the U.S. District Court for the District ruled in favor of the project. The U.S. Department of Justice appealed, and the board said it is awaiting that outcome.

Mr. McGhie said that if the Justice Department wins its appeal, the initiative won't be allowed on the ballot, so elections officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The court of appeals looks like they can go either way," he said, adding that a ruling is expected by Sept. 25.

The elections board has until early October to begin printing the ballots, Mr. McGhie said.

The board's apparent indecision over the issue yesterday afternoon infuriated Mr. Fox.

"A verbal commitment is as good a written commitment; it's just harder to prove," he said. If the elections board "is trying to give any indication that a decision hasn't been made, then they're lying through their teeth."

If the medical marijuana initiative does appear on the ballot and receives enough votes, it would effectively bar D.C. police from arresting "seriously ill people who use marijuana at the advice of their physicians," the project said in a statement.

"We know that District voters support legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill people," project spokeswoman Krissy Oechslin said.

Mrs. Oechslin cited the results of the 1998 election, when the medical marijuana initiative appeared on the D.C. ballot. The initiative was supported by more than 75,000 D.C. voters more than double the number of voters who opposed it.

She said that nationwide, eight states have laws protecting people from being arrested for using marijuana if they have a doctor's note: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state.

Stipulations on the laws are different in each state, and nowhere can doctors prescribe marijuana, because it's classified by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance.

"Generally, patients are allowed to grow several marijuana plants, or they can just buy it on the black market," Mrs. Oechslin said. "In California there are distribution centers called cannibus clubs."

Medical marijuana activist Adam Eidinger says the fight to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes is being waged across the nation and that it will be a battle won if District citizens are allowed to vote on the issue in November.

"This is definite progress, but the best progress is in California, where local law enforcement authorities have entirely washed their hands of making any arrests for marijuana," said Mr. Eidinger, the D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate for U.S. shadow representative from the District.

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