|NMU||WASHINGTON, D.C.||Freedom of Information||Oct 4, 1999|
Judge allows count of medical marijuana referendum votes
- A federal judge ruled that election officials could count last fall’s referendum votes on a medical marijuana initiative, despite the existence of a law that forbids the use of federal money for any such ballot initiatives
A federal district judge for the District of Columbia ruled in mid-September that election officials could count the votes from a 1998 city referendum on whether to allow the use of medical marijuana in the nation’s capital.
The ruling put an end to a year-long struggle between backers of an effort to legalize medical marijuana, known as Initiative 59, and congressional Republicans who oppose such measures.
The imbroglio started in September 1998, when local activists secured a place on the November ballot for a referendum on whether to allow the use of medical marijuana. In response, Congressman Robert Barr (R-Ga.) sponsored an amendment to the District’s appropriations bill that would prohibit the District from using federal money to conduct any ballot initiative that would decriminalize marijuana use. By time the Barr Amendment had been passed in October 1998, however, the Board of Elections and Ethics already had printed the ballots, and District voters were allowed to vote on the initiative.
Board of Elections officials refused to count the ballots after the election for fear they would violate the Barr Amendment. Led by the National Capital Area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, supporters of the initiative and the Board of Elections were parties in a suit against the federal government to allow the ballots to be counted and to rule the Barr Amendment unconstitutional.
In his ruling, federal district Judge Richard W. Roberts did not strike down the amendment as an unconstitutional burden on political speech. Instead, he found that the amendment could not prevent the Board of Elections from counting and certifying the election results.
The election results were released Sept. 20, with 69 percent of the 137,000 votes cast approving the initiative.
(Turner v. D.C. Bd. of Election and Ethics; Counsel for the ACLU: Arthur B. Spitzer, Washington)
© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press