Federal Court Allows DC Government to Tally Medical Marijuana Initiative Vote

September 17, 1999 12:00 am

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Friday, September 17, 1999

WASHINGTON — In a sweeping ruling, a federal court today said that Congress had acted improperly in attempting to block the District of Columbia from tallying the results of a ballot measure on medical marijuana.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for the First Amendment rights of DC voters and home rule,” said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, which had filed the lawsuit last year. “We’re delighted that the Federal court has so completely vindicated the rights of District residents.”

At issue before the court was Initiative 59, a ballot measure that would legalize the medical use of marijuana when recommended by a physician to alleviate serious illnesses such as AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. The initiative was put before the DC voters in November 1998, but the result was never tallied or released because Congress had passed legislation forbidding the District from spending any funds to conduct the initiative.

In a 24-page ruling, Federal District Court Judge Richard W. Roberts agreed with the ACLU that despite its author’s intent, the Congressional measure — which was introduced by Rep. Bob Barr, R-GA — did not prohibit the District government from counting, announcing or certifying the results of the referendum on Initiative 59.

Responding to the ACLU’s other claim that the measure was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech, Judge Roberts said that he did not need to rule on the constitutional questions because he had already ruled that the Barr measure did not prohibit the initiative process from going forward. But if Congress had done so, Judge Roberts said, it would have been unconstitutional.

“In this case, First Amendment speech through the vote would have been effectively extinguished if the Barr Amendment had blocked releasing and certifying the results,” Roberts said. “To cast a lawful vote only to be told that that vote will not be counted or released is to rob the vote of any communicative meaning whatsoever.”

Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project, hailed Judge Roberts’ decision, saying that “hostility to medical marijuana is no excuse for canceling an election.”

“This decision,” he added, “will ensure that voters have an opportunity to chart a more compassionate course that places medicine over politics.”

The case is Turner v. D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. Attorneys in the case are Graham Boyd and Arthur Spitzer of the ACLU.

The court’s ruling can be found at:

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