Judge releases D.C. vote on medicinal marijuana

Tuesday, September 21, 1999

Residents of the District of Columbia overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana that is used for medicinal uses, according to results released yesterday from a vote taken in the nation's capitol nearly 11 months ago.

About 69% of more than 137,000 votes cast approved Initiative 59, a measure that would change D.C. law to legalize the cultivation, distribution, possession and use of marijuana if recommended by a physician for serious illnesses.

But the likelihood that D.C. residents will ever have the opportunity to use a legalized form of marijuana remains in doubt. Attached to a $4.7 billion D.C. budget passed by the Senate last week were “social riders” that, in part, prohibit the legalization of marijuana for medicinal uses.

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics released the results of the ballot measure yesterday after a federal judge last week dismantled a congressional effort to prevent the results from seeing light. U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts, in a decision released Sept. 17, ruled that D.C. officials had a right to count votes.

Roberts, in his 24-page opinion, said Congress acted improperly in its attempt to block D.C. officials from counting the votes from the Nov. 3 referendum.

“Congress may have entirely understandable motives for attempting to curb drug possession, use and distribution in the District,” the judge wrote. “That does not change the fact that keeping a veil over the results of a properly conducted referendum would cut short public expression about the topic of drug legalization — either pro, con or neutral.”

Shortly before the November 1998 election, Congress passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., barring the District of Columbia from spending any taxpayer money to conduct an initiative on medicinal marijuana. Because the initiative had already been placed on the general election ballot, however, district residents were allowed to vote.

But the U.S. Justice Department successfully blocked the vote count. In December, D.C. officials and the ACLU asked Roberts to unseal the ballots, saying government officials' actions infringed upon the First Amendment.

Roberts said he declined to rule on constitutional grounds because the Barr amendment did not expressly forbid a vote tally. But he added that he would have deemed such legislation unconstitutional if it had.

“In this case, First Amendment speech through the vote would have been effectively extinguished if the Barr Amendment had blocked releasing and certifying the results,” Roberts wrote. “To cast a lawful vote only to be told that that vote will not be counted or released is to rob the vote of any communicative meaning whatsoever.”

Mary Jane DeFrank, executive director of the district chapter of the ACLU, said she was thrilled that the court recognized the constitutional issues involved in the case.

“This was a legislative process that took over two years and thousands of signatures,” DeFrank said. “How dare Congress vote to overturn this 13 days before election.”

But DeFrank notes that Congress remains free to keep all forms of marijuana illegal, even though many D.C. residents believe that they should decide such issues themselves.

Last July, the House passed a revised version of Barr's amendment that would prohibit all government funding for any type of Schedule I drug, including marijuana, under the Controlled Substance Act. The Senate approved the amendment last week.

Meanwhile, the White House has threatened to veto the D.C. budget because of the medicinal-marijuana rider and other amendments to the budget.