MARIJUANA PROPOSALS GO TO VOTERS IN THREE WESTERN STATES
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Bush administration's war on drugs stretches
deep into Asia and Latin America, yet one of its most crucial
campaigns -- in the eyes of drug czar John Walters -- is being waged
this fall among voters in Oregon, Alaska and Montana.
In each state, activists seeking to ease drug laws have placed a
marijuana-related proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot as part of a
long-running quest for alternatives to federal drug policies they
consider harsh and ineffective.
If all three measures are approved, Montana would become the 10th
state to legalize pot for medical purposes, Oregon would dramatically
expand its existing medical-marijuana program, and Alaska would become
the first state to decriminalize marijuana altogether.
Walters has been campaigning in person against the measures, taking a
particularly aggressive role in opposing Oregon's Measure 33. It would
create state-regulated dispensaries to supply marijuana, let
authorized growers sell pot to patients for a profit, and allow
patients to possess a pound of it at a time instead of the current
"They use medical marijuana as a Trojan horse," Walters said of the
measure's supporters. "People's suffering is being used for legalizing
drug use beginning with marijuana and moving forward."
Oregon and Alaska are among nine states which, since 1996, have
adopted laws allowing qualified patients to use medical marijuana. The
others are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Vermont and
The U.S. House defeated a proposal in July to stop the federal
government from prosecuting people who use marijuana for medical
reasons in states that allow it. A case raising that same issue is to
be considered soon by the Supreme Court.
Oregon and Alaska activists say their ballot measures would eliminate
problems patients now face in obtaining enough marijuana to ease their
In Oregon, for example, the 10,000 patients enrolled in the current
program must grow their own pot or get it from designated "caregivers"
who cannot be paid.
"It takes knowledge, money
and everything going right to grow
high-quality marijuana," said John Sajo, 48, a longtime drug-reform
activist who runs the Measure 33 campaign from a cramped office. "Most
patients suffering debilitating medical conditions just aren't able to
grow their own."
Madeline Martinez, a former prison guard, does manage to grow
marijuana at her Portland home. She appreciates the chance to legally
use pot, rather than powerful prescription drugs, to ease the
discomfort of her degenerative disc and joint disease.
"Instead of being in a drug-induced stupor, I can interact with my
grandchildren," said Martinez, 53. "It's given me the quality of life
The Oregon Medical Association differs, calling Measure 33 bad public
health policy. Oregon's prosecutors also oppose the measure, which
trails in statewide polls.
"There's enough stuff out in our world to lead young people astray
without adding another one," said Benton County District Attorney
Alaskans will vote on a measure even more far-reaching than Oregon's
-- to prohibit prosecution of anyone 21 or older who consumes, grows
or distributes pot for private personal use. It would allow
authorities to regulate marijuana along the lines of alcohol and
tobacco -- for example, taxing it and barring its use in public.
Even a leading foe of the measure, former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea,
believes it might pass, thanks partly to sophisticated advertising
backed by national marijuana-reform organizations.
"They've got a lot of money behind them and they're running a very
professional campaign," Shea said in a telephone interview. "It's
difficult for us on the other side -- we don't get paid a penny."
Under a 1975 state court ruling, Alaskans already have the tacit right
to possess up to four ounces of pot in their homes for personal use.
Shea said decriminalization supporters suggest in ads that any
crackdown on at-home pot use might be followed by a crackdown on gun
Shea contended that the state's top elected officials, and
Alaska-based federal authorities, have been too reserved in
challenging the measure, apparently because of concerns that they
shouldn't actively take sides in a referendum campaign.
"They're so worried about offending the so-called freethinkers in
Alaska," Shea said. "But you've got to stand up for what you believe
Walters acknowledged that Alaskans' libertarian attitudes might
benefit the other side -- but feels approval would be a disaster.
"I don't think there's another state that's suffered as much from
substance abuse as Alaska," Walters added. "It's shocking that we'd
have outside groups working to make this problem worse."
In Montana, a recent poll indicated the medical marijuana measure
would be approved, and few top officials have campaigned vigorously
against it. The chief spokesman for the measure, investment adviser
Paul Befumo, is aware that such proposals have always prevailed when
going before voters in other states. "You don't want to be the first
that loses," he said.
National drug-reform groups hope state medical-marijuana programs will
proliferate, and have produced studies asserting that existing
programs don't trigger increases in youth marijuana use or other
"It's slow and cumbersome to go state by state, but when you do get
closer to the people, it seems you have a better chance," said Bruce
Mirkin of the Marijuana Policy Project. "If people keep supporting
reform measures, at some point a light bulb will go off over Congress
and we'll see changes at the federal level."