By Alfa · Oct 17, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    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
    3-ounce limit.

    "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
    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
    I wanted."

    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
    Scott Heiser.

    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
    feared problems.

    "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."

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