LOS ANGELES — As the rise in illicit drug use among American youths takes center stage in the presidential campaign, a California initiative to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes is drawing a spotlight.
The measure, known as Proposition 215, is being watched nationwide along with a similar ballot initiative in Arizona. Both would allow doctors to openly recommend medical use of marijuana and prohibit prosecution of primary caregivers who obtain or grow marijuana.
"This will increase the number of people who can use marijuana as an alternative to traditional medicine without fear of being jailed," says Jeffrey Reed, a nurse in San Francisco who is diagnosed with AIDS.
Opponents argue that the initiative would pave the way for the legalization of other drugs, while proponents say the drug has therapeutic benefits for the seriously ill. Politicians, highly sensitive to drugs as an election-year issue, warily track it from the sidelines.
The initiatives are considered major tests of using the ballot box to circumvent political footdragging. Polls show that support for medicinal marijuana use is rising. Two bills with similar language to Proposition 215 passed the California legislature in 1994 and 1995, only to be vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.
"It is only because one individual governor has not responded to the sentiment of his own state legislature that citizens are being forced to take this into their own hands," says Paul Armentano, publications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington.
While several California polls seem to indicate the measure will pass, Proposition 215 is also drawing interest for the signal it may send to other states and to Washington. The issue has become political dynamite in Election 1996 after recent statistics showed marijuana, LSD, and cocaine use had more than doubled since 1992 among children 12 to 17.
Candidate Bob Dole has criticized President Clinton for being soft on drugs while Mr. Clinton has charged that the Republican-dominated Congress has not provided $640 million in antidrug money requested by the White House.
"We feel a great deal of momentum will be produced by the California decision," says Mr. Armentano. "In an election year, no top politician wants to appear soft on drugs. This gives them a signal that the people want an exemption for medical purposes."
From 1978 to 1996, 36 states passed criminal code exemptions for the medical use of cannabis. While 23 have since repealed such clauses, 13 remain, and recent polls show the idea is again growing in acceptance. A 1995 national poll by the American Civil Liberties Union showed 64 percent of American voters strongly favor making marijuana legally available. A 1995 California survey showed voters support the measure by nearly 3 to 1.
The current measure is backed by the California Academy of Family Physicians, the California Nurses Association, the Congress of California Seniors, and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
Proposition 215 would encourage the state and federal governments to devise a plan to safely and affordably distribute marijuana to those who need it based on doctors' written or spoken permission. The law would have no effect on existing laws against recreational use.
But opponents say studies have not shown conclusively that marijuana helps the sick. Some, like the California Medical Association, call for definitive studies. Others say Proposition 215 opens the door for the decriminalization of recreational drugs and is a hoax by those who would seek to legalize other drugs.
"We see this as a legalization effort," says Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, one of the measure's most outspoken opponents. "They want a crack in the door. Once marijuana is there, then why not decriminalize heroin?"
Opponents also hold that the language of Proposition 215 doesn't outline how much marijuana can be possessed or cultivated - causing problems for the enforcement against recreational use - and does not specify which illnesses would qualify. Such vagueness might open the door for using marijuana for minor maladies, they say.
And opponents say that legalizing an illegal drug, even for medical purposes, sends the message to youths that its use is "normal and acceptable, even cool," says Leigh Levanthal of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit advocacy coalition. "If you start to legalize drugs, all studies show the use of other drugs will rise as well."