House approves revised medicinal-marijuana ban in D.C. budget

Tuesday, August 3, 1999

The House last week passed a revised measure to block the use of medicinal marijuana in the District of Columbia, even though a referendum vote on the issue last November remains uncounted.

“The goal of Washington, D.C.'s marijuana initiative is using a dishonest argument to allow drug abusers in our nation's capitol to legally feed their habits,” said Bob Barr, D-Ga., who sponsored the amendment to the District of Columbia budget. “Drug users and their enablers are arguing we should circumvent the FDA approval process, stock pharmacy shelves by voter referendum and put the lives of patients at risk.”

The Barr amendment prohibits “the use of any funding to legalize or reduce the penalty for the possession, use or distribution of any Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act.”

Putting the debate over the benefits of medical marijuana aside, supporters of last year's referendum say Barr and the House circumvented the First Amendment by continuing to leave the votes of the referendum sealed.

“The medical marijuana initiative is a very real issue, but we haven't had the opportunity to have good, real honest debate on Capitol Hill,” said Wayne Turner, an activist with ACT UP, an AIDS awareness group based in Washington, D.C. “I really think what Bob Barr is doing is trying to stop that democratic process. He's trying to stop that good, honest debate from occurring.”

Barr's amendment replaces one he successfully sponsored last October that barred the District of Columbia from spending any taxpayer money to conduct an initiative on the medical use of marijuana. But because such a referendum — called Initiative 59 — had already been placed on the November general election ballot, district residents did vote on the matter.

However, the U.S. Justice Department successfully blocked the vote count. Last December, D.C. officials and the American Civil Liberties Union asked U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts to unseal the ballots. Roberts hasn't ruled yet.

On July 20, the House Appropriations Committee voted to strike a provision from the fiscal 2000 D.C. budget bill that would forbid the district from using federal or municipal funds to carry out the marijuana initiative. The measure found approval even among conservative Republicans, who called Barr's original amendment a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

But on July 29, House members, by voice vote, approved the revised Barr amendment. Supporters of unsealing the D.C. votes, however, succeeded in stripping from the amendment any mention of municipal funds. The House then approved the fiscal 2000 D.C. budget with a 333-92 vote.

Because the Senate already passed a version of the D.C. budget without the Barr amendment, the different versions now go to conference committee to be reconciled.

Turner noted that the initiative votes remain uncounted, “yet Congress is enacting this extraordinary power against the will of the people.”

Barr said that, without his amendment, the District of Columbia might have moved forward to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“A handful of well-funded extremists have attempted to subvert America's drug laws with the fictitious argument that marijuana is healthy,” said Barr, in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “The fact is, marijuana has no legitimate medicinal uses.”

But Turner said that Barr was wrong in saying that the amendment serves as a last resort to stave off medical marijuana. He noted that Congress, under federal law, authorizes the district's annual budget and has the power to overturn any law approved by the district's council.

On the House floor, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., warned that the amendment could have more far-reaching ramifications than simply forbidding the legalization of medical marijuana. The amendment would forbid reduced sentences for first-time drug users or plea-bargaining agreements in large drug stings.

Turner said the amendment could thwart the whole democratic process for anyone attempting to change drug laws in Washington D.C.

“The word 'enact' describes the entire legislative process,” Turner said. “Part of enacting a voter initiative means gathering signatures for petitions — which we did — and putting it up for a vote — which we did. The new amendment could ban the whole process.”