A small, shivering army fights for medicinal pot
By Stephen Dinan and Ronald J. Hansen
December 8, 1997

     It's not easy collecting signatures to decriminalize marijuana, even for medical purposes only. Just ask the people who have been pounding D.C. streets with petitions in their hands. They have to collect 16,763 signatures -- 5 percent of the city's registered voters -- by 5 p.m. today to get the question on next year's ballot.
     They've had several run-ins with police preventing them from collecting signatures, even in public places, and they have endured heckling from passers-by. Then there are the folks whom they don't even bother to ask.
     "A white man between 40 and 55, well dressed, walking fast and smoking a cigar -- forget it," said Wayne Turner, out collecting signatures yesterday.
     And, as with any signature-driven referendum, they aren't sure how many of the signatures they have are valid.
     Opponents contend that the initiative is the first step toward wider drug use. Supporters say the initiative is carefully crafted to limit use strictly for medicinal users seeking relief from the pain or nausea of AIDS treatment, chemotherapy or glaucoma.
     Mr. Turner, co-founder of the Washington chapter of ACT-UP, an AIDS advocacy group, guesses he has run through his refrain thousands of times in the past six months. Unfailingly polite, he asks for a moment of your time and, when granted, runs through a
citizenship checklist.
     "Are you a D.C. resident? Are you registered to vote? Would you like to sign a petition?"
     Standing outside the Safeway grocery store on Alabama Avenue SE yesterday, Mr. Turner shivered in the wind as he sang his song and defended the controversial initiative, which has drawn fire from many critics.
     Hearing their arguments, Mr. Turner countered, "It's 30 degrees out here. I'm tired, I'm cold. I'm not doing this so people can party."
    He and an army of volunteers canvassed the city over the chilly weekend in a last-minute push to gain the necessary signatures. They seem to have enough to qualify, but the haunting question is whether enough are valid. That's why they were trying to build a safety cushion over the weekend.
     People sign for different reasons, they say. Mr. Turner estimates that 60 percent know someone who they think would benefit from the treatment. Another 20 percent don't really have a position but sign because it's an exercise in democracy.
     And the rest?
     "They see the word 'marijuana' and say 'All right man!' you know? But I'll take them any way I can," he said.
     Initiative 57 would allow the use of marijuana, on the recommendation of a doctor, by people suffering from such diseases as AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. Supporters say it can alleviate pain and help some sick people keep food down.
     The initiative would not allow the recreational use of marijuana.
     Drawing on six months of collecting experience, Mr. Turner says women are more likely to sign than men, blacks are more likely than whites, the elderly are good signers, and, he thinks, lefties sign more often than righties.
     Capitol Hill resident Jeff Taylor, 32, was one of those who signed.  "It still is a hard issue, but it's the right thing to do," said Mr. Taylor, adding that he supported the issue when he lived in the San Francisco area, too.
     Michael Cushman, 41, said he supports the issue because he has an uncle undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
     "As long as it's 'dope' he's not going to use it," Mr. Cushman said. "He's a law-and-order guy. I think he would try it if a doctor recommended it."
     But for every Mr. Cushman, there are probably three persons who shake their heads or say "No thanks." And there are the few who take it a bit further.
     "People have said I'm the devil or anything other than God's child," said Aaron, a signature collector at Eastern Market on Saturday who would not give his last name.
     Some volunteers were told they couldn't collect signatures in front of a Giant Food store, so organizers tried a test. They fabricated Initiative 58, advocating prayer in schools, and went back to the same Giant store. This time not only were they undisturbed, but they even managed to collect signatures from inside the store.
     Then there are the structural barriers, such as the fact that voter registrations aren't considered valid until they have actually been processed by the city. In other jurisdictions, Mr. Turner said, they are valid from the moment they are signed.
     Whatever the outcome, Mr. Turner says ACT-UP will challenge the requirement to have 17,000 signatures to put an initiative on the ballot. He says the group's experience shows that there simply can't be 335,255 registered voters in the city.

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