Your Vote Doesn't Count in D.C.

How 141,977 votes aren't worth .64 to Bob Barr.

| Tue Mar. 9, 1999 3:00 AM EST

Last year, a group of concerned Washington, D.C., residents fought to have an initiative placed on their November ballot to legalize the medical use of marijuana. But two weeks before the November vote, Rep. Bob Barr's (R-Ga.) amendment to the District's budget forbade the use of funds for any ballot initiative that would "legalize or otherwise reduce penalties [for]...any Schedule I substance."

What happened next was an example of American politics at its most bizarre, and yet another chapter in the District of Columbia's ongoing struggle to get out from under Congress's thumb. The initiative stayed on the ballot, and more than 100,000 D.C. residents voted on it. But D.C.'s Board of Elections couldn't count, certify, or release the results of the vote. To do so would have violated Barr's amendment, even though the estimated cost of tabulating the results (which amounts to pushing a button on a computer) works out to $1.64. Four months and a lawsuit later, we still don't know the outcome of the vote.

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Initiative 59 -- the Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998 -- made it on the ballot in November, following an intense grassroots campaign led by D.C. resident Wayne Turner. To get the measure on the ballot, Turner's coalition -- including the D.C. Green Party and ACT-UP -- had to collect signatures from five percent of all registered D.C. voters within six months. The coalition collected far more than that. Turner, understandably, expected success after similar measures passed in California and Arizona in 1996. Enter Bob Barr.

Barr, perhaps best known for his hawkish views and his ties to a white- supremacist organization, had different ideas for Initiative 59 -- namely, killing it. The Georgia Republican sponsored an amendment to the fiscal 1999 D.C. budget which, in effect, made it illegal to count or certify the results of the votes. Exit polls indicated the measure passed by a large margin, but the Board of Elections was bound by the Barr amendment. Barr's rationale: The District -- which is not a state and is administered directly by Congress -- is supported by taxpayers all over the country, a large number of whom, he publicly assumes, do not want their money used to legalize drugs. However, it seems the American people are expressing their approval of medical marijuana: legalization measures passed in all four states in which they were proposed in November. Furthermore, a 1995 American Civil Liberties Union poll indicated that 64 percent of Americans would "strongly favor" legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.

A statement from Barr's office said, "If the citizens of the District want to move forward with their efforts to legalize marijuana...that's their problem. But my constituents...aren't interested in paying for Washington, D.C.'s folly."

When the Board of Elections failed to count the votes on the D.C. ballot measure, Turner, the ACLU, and several other individuals sued the board. As Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU of the National Capitol Area, explains, "It comes down to a question of whether this act violates the First Amendment rights of D.C. voters by stymieing their statutory right to vote on this initiative." Others question whether the move is yet another example of how Congressional control of D.C. governance may amount to taxation without representation.

In another bizarre twist, the Board of Elections decided that it agreed with the ACLU; they asked the court to order them to release the results of the vote. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice had to intervene as the new plaintiff to defend the constitutionality of Barr's amendment. The case was heard on December 18 in the U.S. 7th District Court of Appeals, but a decision has yet to be reached.

Over the last three years, voters in six states -- California, Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington -- have approved measures providing for the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Despite this, the Federal government and vocal Republicans have tried to prevent these legislations from becoming reality. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the Clinton administration has threatened doctors who acted under the provisions of the new laws with revocation of their licenses or even prosecution. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey justified the Office of Drug Control Policy's stance, saying, "we must not send a mixed message to our youth about the dangers of...marijuana" and other drugs. Even pre-resignation Newt Gingrich chimed in, lauding efforts to combat "the grave threat of subtle interests to legalize illegal drugs for 'medicinal purposes' " which were "endangering our country and our future."

But not everyone on Capitol Hill -- and indeed, not every Republican -- is against legalizing medical marijuana. On March 2, Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) sponsored a bill that would change the drug's status from a Schedule I (the most strictly regulated) to a Schedule II controlled substance. Schedule I drugs , including heroin, LSD, and mescaline, have no approved medical use and are available for research only. Schedule II drugs can only be obtained by prescription and cannot have refills. If approved as Schedule II, marijuana would join the ranks of morphine, cocaine, and methadone. Co-sponsors of the bill include Representatives John Conyers (D-Mich.), Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Tom Campbell (R-Calif.). Frank has publicly admitted that he doubts the bill will pass in the Republican-controlled 106th Congress.

j.j. richardson writes regularly for the MoJo Wire.