Voters Approve Measure to Use Pot as Medicine
After an upstart campaign that drew the wrath of law enforcement, Californians bucked years of demonizing marijuana and voted yes Tuesday to legalize use of the drug for medical treatment.
Although Proposition 215 was criticized as the wrong message during America’s war against drugs, and full of loopholes to boot, a majority of voters saw it differently in this big surprise.
“Doonesbury won the election!” joked Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. “This may be the baby boomers taking control.”
She referred to one of the campaign’s sideshows, in which cartoonist Garry Trudeau publicized the initiative in his “Doonesbury” comic strip and made fun of state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren’s hard-line stand against medical use of marijuana. At the time, Lungren indignantly responded that the cartoon was trivializing the dire social consequences of drug abuse.
On Tuesday, Lungren sounded slightly flummoxed about the election outcome.
“This thing is a disaster. What’s going to happen? We’re going to have an unprecedented mess,” he said.
In another blow to the anti-drug establishment, voters in neighboring Arizona passed an even broader measure. In that state, Proposition 200 legalizes medicinal use of marijuana as well as other drugs now beyond the reach of doctors. But of more consequence, it specifies that nonviolent drug users convicted of first- and second-time use of recreational drugs be given probation and rehabilitation instead of prison time.
As for California’s vote, its symbolism is sure to be debated for days--just what message are voters sending? Supporters said it should not be interpreted as a vote for drug use, but a vote against government’s anti-drug hysteria. And they vowed to spread their campaign to other states and Congress.
Dave Fratello, spokesman for the Proposition 215 committee, Californians for Medical Rights, said that vote would have only limited effects.
“What we are going to find in California very quickly is that the sky is not going to fall. There is not going to be a wave of new marijuana use prompted by 215,” he said.
Fratello announced that his organization would establish a toll-free hotline Wednesday to counsel doctors and their patients about the initiative.
Gov. Pete Wilson said voters were attempting to be “compassionate” with their vote to help seriously ill patients, such as those with AIDS, alleviate pain. But he said Proposition 215 was poorly worded and would have broader effects.
“They didn’t pay attention to the details,” Wilson said of voters. “It is so loose it is a virtual legalization of the sale of marijuana.”
In an exit survey of voters statewide, the Los Angeles Times Poll found that not only was Proposition 215 favored by what appeared to be a convincing majority, but also that it was favored by one-third of Republicans and by about 25% of those who described themselves as conservative. As might be expected, there was a generation gap, with voters over 65 opposed to the measure but a majority of other voters appearing to support it.
The practical effect of the vote, however, seems surely to be mired in legal doubt.
Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for the most dangerous of substances that “lack an accepted medical use.” By comparison, opium and cocaine are classified as Schedule II drugs and can be prescribed under supervision of the state medical board.
California’s vote does nothing to alter that, and President Clinton’s drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, has been highly critical of the California and Arizona propositions. Tuesday night, the former Army general’s spokesman, Donald P. Maple, sounded a cautious note, however.
“We’ll save our reaction until we’ve seen the size of the vote,” Marple said.
In a pre-election television interview, McCaffrey had been quoted as saying that the federal government would prosecute doctors who attempted to prescribe marijuana.
But Marple offered a clarification: “What Gen. McCaffrey has said is that the federal government will uphold the law, but that you’ve got to look at any situation on a case-by-case basis.”
“What does it mean in practice? We’ll have to see how they put this into effect first,” Marple said.
The wording of the ballot proposition poses uncertainties. It calls for lifting drug penalties for doctors who “recommend” marijuana for treatment, and for patients who follow the recommendation and use it. Growing marijuana for medical purposes is legal under the proposition, but its sale is not.
Levenson said she doubted if there would be a substantial number of prosecutions.
“I think it’s unlikely the federal government would take resources away from the prosecution of heroin and crack cocaine cases to go after marijuana cases. They might do a few cases to set an example. You have to remember that marijuana cases have not been a priority for the federal government lately, unless it was a boatload or a planeload of marijuana.”
She also said that there is a very practical consideration that prosecutors will have to take into consideration. “You have to try your case to a jury that comes from this electorate. If this many people support this measure, what are your chances of winning?”
Peter Arenella, a criminal law professor at UCLA, said medical patients who use the drug could still risk legal trouble.
“Technically, federal prosecutors retain the power to prosecute some sick individual who is using marijuana to alleviate his discomfort,” he said.
But he added, “Practically, it would make very little sense to use scarce prosecutorial resources on such a case after the passage of this initiative in California. The only purpose for such a prosecution would be to remind Californians that federal law has the last word.”
Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, who chaired the anti-Proposition 215 campaign, said the vote poses “very serious legal problems for the enforcement of drugs.”
He said he planned to convene a high-level meeting of federal and state law enforcement officials “to determine what course of action we will be taking in the next several weeks.”
Gates and other opponents were sharply critical of the fact that most of the $2 million that supporters raised was from six individuals, five of whom live out of state. Among them is New York philanthropist George Soros, who gave $550,000 to the Proposition 215 campaign and $430,000 to the ballot measure in Arizona.
Gates said the outcome proved that a few “rich people who want to spend their money affecting the social climate and environment of Californians and Arizonans . . . can move to legalize drugs throughout the country.”
That said, however, sufferers from AIDS and cancer were among those most strongly seeking Proposition 215--the first statewide vote on marijuana since 1972. Back then, voters soundly rejected legalization of the drug. Last year and also in 1994, the Legislature passed its own versions of Proposition 215 on medical marijuana, but Wilson vetoed them.
In this campaign, medical researchers argued that America’s war on drugs had reached such an extreme that even legitimate, supervised research had been closed off.
“The public is ahead of the politicians,” said Bill Zimmerman, the Los Angeles political consultant who ran the Proposition 215 campaign.
“People know that the drug warriors are lying about marijuana by lumping it in with heroin and cocaine. There is too much direct experience with marijuana for that to be credible.”
Celebrating his victory with 50 boisterous supporters at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, Zimmerman said, “For us, this campaign does not end tonight. There are 49 other states.”
Times staff writers Dan Morain, Dave Lesher, Henry Weinstein and Matea Gold and Paul Jacobs in Sacramento contributed to this story.