U.S. Court of Appeals Blocks Washington, D.C., Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday overturned a lower court ruling that would have allowed medical marijuana advocates to place an initiative to legalize the use of the drug for medicinal purposes on the November ballot, the Washington Post reports. The decision ended a 14-month fight over the ballot initiative, which was sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project. In July 2001, MPP filed a request with the D.C. Board of Elections to collect signatures in favor of the initiative, which would have shielded people who use marijuana for medical purposes from arrest and prosecution. The board denied that request, citing a congressional rider attached to the D.C. appropriations bill that prevents public funds from being used to process the initiative (Santana, Washington Post, 9/20). The rider, which was sponsored by Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and was first passed as part of the 1999 appropriations bill and renewed in 2000, 2001 and 2002, prevents public funds from being used on the creation of any law that reduces criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana for any reason (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 3/29). The rider was used to overrule a 1998 voter initiative that would have legalized medicinal use of marijuana in the District. After the board's denial, MPP sued the federal and District governments on the basis that the rider was unconstitutional because it prevented free speech. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan on March 28 ruled in the group's favor, allowing them to collect the necessary signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot. However, the U.S. Department of Justice appealed the ruling, leading to yesterday's appellate court decision the day before the finalized version of the city's ballot was due to go to the printer. The three-member panel did not provide reasons for their decision, citing the urgency of the ruling because of the printing deadline, but said that the decision "will be more fully explained in an opinion to be filed at a later date." The decision blocks the initiative from appearing on this year's ballot. However, if the congressional rider is not attached to the 2003 District appropriations bill, medical marijuana advocates can attempt to place the initiative on next year's ballot (Washington Post, 9/20).
Steve Fox, director of government relations for MPP, said his group was "saddened" by the decision. "This decision by the court of appeals will cause the suffering of seriously ill patients in the city to continue," he said. He added that MPP was "pleased" that it was "able to do the work necessary to show that we had enough signatures and that the initiative may be able to appear on another ballot in the future." Barr said he was satisfied with the court's decision because it "recognized the right and responsibility of Congress to protect citizens from dangerous, mind-altering narcotics" (Taylor, Washington Times, 9/20).