Organizers of an effort to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in
Washington delivered more than 940 pages of petitions to the D.C. Board
of Elections and Ethics yesterday to put the measure on the ballot. The
measure, known as Initiative 57, needs 17,070 signatures from the
city's registered voters -- 5 percent of the total pool -- to be placed on the ballot. The petitions turned in yesterday, with about 20 signatures a page, had perhaps 18,000 signatures, which means there is little room for names to be thrown out as invalid. In addition, the signatures must come from 5 percent of the registered voters in five of the city's eight wards.
A busy weekend of canvassing supermarkets and Metro stations across the city ended in frenzied activity at the board's offices at One Judiciary Square, as nearly two dozen volunteers raced to complete and number hundreds of pages of signatures by the 5 p.m. deadline.
"This has been a long, hard struggle, and I really hope that we make it," said Steve Michael, of ACT UP Washington, the group spearheading the effort to get the marijuana initiative on the ballot. "But if we fall short, we will immediately start all over again. In the course of this campaign, we met thousands of D.C. voters who are behind this issue."
The board has 30 days to verify the signatures, Executive Director Alice
Miller said. The petitions also will be posted for 10 days to allow for
challenges. If the board rules that not enough valid signatures were collected,
organizers could, in theory, start the process over from scratch and still
have time to try to get the measure placed on the September 1998 mayoral
primary ballot. The measure would need a simple majority of votes to be
Initiative 57 would legalize the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana if "recommended" by a physician for illnesses such as AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. It also would require the city to provide for the "safe and affordable" distribution of marijuana to Medicaid patients and other low-income residents whose doctors recommend it.
"This is a movement from the heart," said Patricia Hawkins, associate executive director of Whitman-Walker Clinic, who visited the board's offices to support the volunteers. Although the clinic, the city's largest provider of AIDS-related services, has not taken an official position on the matter, Hawkins said, "there is a lot of interest in this among our clients and our staff."
Similar in many respects to a ballot measure passed in California last year, the D.C. initiative has made the city the latest battleground in the fight to legalize marijuana. Locally, the issue has generated little controversy, and many members of the D.C. Council, as well as Mayor Marion Barry, signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot.
But the initiative effort has drawn fire from national politicians and anti-drug groups, including Barry R. McCaffery, director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, and former GOP presidential candidate Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes.
If the measure makes it onto the ballot, supporters and opponents predict an intense fight in the national spotlight. If the measure wins voter approval, it still would be subject to review by the D.C. financial control board and Congress, where opposition to legalization is intense.
The city's last successful ballot initiative was in November 1996, when
voters passed a property tax appeals measure pushed by the Service Employees
International Union. Earlier this year, an effort to recall Barry failed
when organizers couldn't collect the required 34,000 signatures to put
the question on the ballot.