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December 3, 1996

Rhetoric Mounts Over Medical Marijuana Issue

        December 3, 1996, Washington, D.C.:  Voter-approved initiatives in California and Arizona regarding medical access to marijuana are not only garnering national headlines, but also the ire of various federal and state officials.  Most recently, the initiatives were the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which federal elected officials and representatives from law enforcement reaffirmed their opposition to the notion of medical marijuana and warned of the potential for similar initiatives to crop up in other states.
        "[This ballot measure] begins a road to destruction of people's lives in this country," said Sen Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), one of only three senators who attended the hearing.  Kyl called the Arizona and California drug-law reform campaigns classic examples of "bait and switch" tactics and alleged that the voters in those states were "deceived" by proponents.
        "The contention that the public was duped is absurd," countered Marvin S. Cohen, who testified on behalf of Arizonans for Drug Policy Reform.  "Voters knew exactly what they were doing on November 5."
        "Rather than accept the outcomes of the initiatives as a mandate that Americans want access to medical marijuana for the seriously ill, some elected officials on both the state and federal level are in a state of denial," charged NORML Deputy Director Allen St. Pierre.  "It is more convenient for them to claim that voters were somehow misled by initiative proponents rather than to acknowledge that they are out of step with their constituents.  The voters of America strongly favor allowing seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana."
        Since the initiatives' passage, there has been considerable public speculation as to whether the federal government will target physicians and patients who comply with the new state laws.  To date, no specific recommendations have come from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).  Both Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and Drug Enforcement Administrator Thomas Constantine testified that federal law prohibiting cultivation and possession of marijuana remain in full force despite the states' actions.  Constantine also threatened that the federal government could "take both administrative and criminal actions against doctors who violate the terms of their DEA drug registrations that authorize them to prescribe controlled substances."  However, both officials also admitted the federal government lacks the manpower to enforce the federal marijuana laws on a wide scale within the states.
        The California initiative says that, "Patients or defined caregivers, who possess or cultivate marijuana for medical treatment recommended by a physician, are exempt from the general provisions of law which otherwise prohibit possession or cultivation of marijuana."  It further provides that, "Physicians shall not be punished or denied any right or privilege for recommending marijuana to a patient for medical purposes."  The Act does not supersede state legislation prohibiting persons from possessing or cultivating marijuana for non-medical purposes.  California voters approved the measure by a vote of 56 to 44 percent.
        Proposition 200 in Arizona, known as the "Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act," is broader than California's measure and would essentially "medicalize" Arizona's drug policy.  The Act calls for mandatory, court supervised treatment and probation as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent drug users and provides expanded drug treatment programs.  It also permits doctors to prescribe controlled drugs such as marijuana to patients suffering from serious illnesses such as glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and AIDS.  Arizonans voted in favor of the initiative by a vote of 65 to 35 percent.
        Fallout from the ongoing medical marijuana debate has quickly branched out to other states.  In Ohio, lawmakers have threatened to repeal a 1995 provision that provides patients with an "affirmative defense" in court if they can prove they were using marijuana under the prior written order of their physician.  NORML activists in Ohio lobbied the state legislature for nearly two years on behalf of the measure which took effect on July 1, 1996.  To date, no medical marijuana users have had to utilize the new law.
        "If it is repealed, there is every reason to believe that the voters will get a chance to put the law back on the books in 1998, through an initiative," said Dave Fratello of Americans for Medical Rights (AMR), which sponsored the successful Proposition 215 campaign in California.  "Our group will work with local patients' rights advocates and medical groups to examine the options if repeal happens."
        Northcoast NORML President John Hartman, who lobbied for the provision, is hopeful that such action will not be necessary.  Currently, he is mobilizing citizens to urge legislators to keep the present law.
        Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey warned Monday that a similar referendum regarding medical access to marijuana could develop in that state as well.  "People who are promoting legalizing drugs will be coming into Connecticut," he told the press in reference to the successful Arizona and California campaigns.  Ironically, Connecticut already has a law on the books that allows physicians to prescribe marijuana to patients suffering from glaucoma or cancer chemotherapy.  Because of apparent conflict with federal law and the fact that the state measure fails to make provisions regarding a legal supply of marijuana, the law has never been used.
        "It is somewhat presumptuous for the Connecticut State Attorney General to claim that medical marijuana reformers will be coming to his state, specifically when Connecticut is one of the few states that already has a law on the books allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana," said St. Pierre.  "I am unaware of any current plans by medical marijuana proponents to target Connecticut."
        "The outpouring of national debate and public sympathy regarding medical marijuana since the election has been tremendous," said NORML Publications Director Paul Armentano.  "The American people have spoken and our state and federal officials have an obligation to listen, not to plot against them."
        For more information, please contact Allen St. Pierre or Paul Armentano of NORML @ (202) 483-5500.  For further information about medical marijuana initiatives, please contact Dave Fratello of Americans for Medical Rights @ (310) 394-2952.  For further information about Ohio's medical marijuana laws, please contact John Hartman of Northcoast NORML @ (216) 521-9333.