Medical Marijuana Back in Court

Neely Tucker
Washington Post

District advocates of medical marijuana use filed suit in U.S. District Court yesterday to put the issue back on the ballot in November, four years after an identical initiative set off a confrontation with Congress over home rule.
Two advocacy groups are seeking an injunction against a federal law that effectively blocks the city from putting the issue before voters again. Sixty-nine percent of D.C. residents supported the medical use of marijuana in a 1998 vote.
"This is a clear First Amendment, free-speech issue," said Alexei Silverman, an attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project and the Medical Marijuana Initiative Committee, the two groups backing the lawsuit. "D.C. residents have the right to voice their opinion and their vision of what the laws in their city should be."
Voters in 1998 made it clear that they wanted to join those states -- eight, so far -- that have legalized the cultivation, possession, use and distribution of marijuana for seriously ill patients whose physicians recommend its use. Proponents of medicinal marijuana cite the drug's usefulness in alleviating pain associated with AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer and other diseases.
But the White House's national drug policy office and several medical associations say the evidence of those benefits is not conclusive enough to merit a change in the law. Many members of Congress have said such use sends a conflicting signal about the nation's war on drugs.
When District residents approved Initiative 59 three years ago, congressional overseers immediately passed legislation that banned the drug's use for medical purposes in the nation's capital. It was more than a year before a federal judge ruled that the ballots could be counted.
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) has sponsored an annual rider on the D.C. appropriation bill that prevents public funds from being used to put the issue on any city ballot in the future. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled last week that the amendment prohibited the panel from doing preliminary work toward putting another marijuana initiative on next year's ballot.
That decision led to yesterday's lawsuit, which names the U.S. and D.C. governments as defendants.
"We're seeking a temporary restraining order that will at least allow us to collect the 16,000 signatures we need to qualify the issue for another referendum," said Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "To be on the November ballot, everything has to be in place by May."
Some patients with painful illnesses were at a news conference outside the courthouse yesterday to stress that the initiative would allow medicinal use of marijuana and would not circumvent the law against recreational marijuana smoking.
"I have terrible pain in my nerves and joints, but I don't want to be arrested," said Candida Fraze, a D.C. resident who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. "I would like the opportunity to try marijuana to alleviate some of the symptoms I have. . . . [Congress's position] seems to be archaic and lacking in any sense of compassion."