Drug Legalization Leaves Haze And Fans a Debate Over Effects

On the heels of votes here and in Arizona legalizing marijuana for medical use, proponents are planting seeds for less-stringent pot laws from coast to coast. Beaten by bigger bankbooks and slick TV ads in the two states, opponents vow to give them a hard row to hoe.

The referendums' results have set off a national debate on attitudes toward the legalization and use of drugs. The fallout from the votes - inside and outside Arizona and California - will be watched nationwide.

"Our purpose is to go into as many states as possible with initiatives in 1998," says Dave Fratello, director of Californians for Medical Rights.

Mr. Fratello says 20 states have asked about the language and procedures used in Proposition 215, whose Nov. 5 passage now allows California doctors to openly recommend marijuana and prohibits prosecution of primary caregivers who obtain or grow it. Five to 10 states will have similar measures ready by 1998, he says.

The broader Arizona measure allows doctors to prescribe drugs such as heroin and LSD and mandates that nonviolent drug offenders receive treatment rather than incarceration.

The initiatives have raised the ire of groups who say they would never have passed had voters read the fine print. "Both campaigns hoodwinked the public with brilliant commercials that misled voters," says Leigh Levanthal of the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug Free America.

What's the message?

Another organization, the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, brought 1,000 leaders of local chapters to Washington last week to discuss how to keep similar measures from reaching the ballot in other states. Topping a long list of strategies for both organizations: heightening awareness of the messages looser laws send to kids.

"Kids get the impression that using ... drugs is good for you ... that if you feel bad, you just smoke something that makes you feel better," says Ms. Levanthal.

By 1998, both sides will have more grist for argument, as the results of the initiatives unfold. They may also benefit from court and other legislative clarifications.

"We will actively collect data - i.e., drug-related accident rates, ... work absences, hospital emergency cases, and the like - which will indicate the consequences of the referenda," said Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, National Drug Policy Director last week. "This is now a national issue, not a California or Arizona issue."

He and US Attorney General Janet Reno have emphasized that federal law still prohibits the possession and sale of marijuana. But in the wake of the new state laws, such pronouncements are confusing.

"These laws raise so many questions for police, it's unbelievable," says Richard M. Romley, district attorney for the county that encompasses Phoenix. "If someone is booked into jail and says they need marijuana and we don't give it to him, are we liable?"

Proponents agree legal clarification is needed. In California, clarifications are already being prepared for introduction in the legislature in January. They include more technical language spelling out what a "physician" is under the law, what constitutes an oral recommendation (that a patient "needs" marijuana), what maladies are appropriate for such recommendations, and how a designated user can obtain the plant, which is currently illegal to sell.

"We want to be ahead of the curve on this, to show that we are concerned about the responsible implementation of this," says Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Who can or can't smoke pot

For now, backers of the initiative have opened a toll-free number and issued a brochure to answer questions on the law. Among the clarifications, Prop. 215:

*"Does not legalize marijuana. It changes how certain people - medical patients and their 'primary caregivers' - will be treated [by the state courts.]"

*"Was designed to protect a specific class of people - the seriously and terminally ill. It does not apply to recreational users ... who simply feel they get some 'medical' benefit."

*Contains a provision ensuring "conduct that endangers others remains illegal. Such conduct is likely to include driving ... [and] operating heavy machinery."

Political observers in both Arizona and California say approval of the two measures is likely to open the door to more serious studies on the effects of marijuana use for various diseases.

And they say the passage of the two laws will reopen pushes in 23 states that passed criminal code exemptions for the medical use of cannabis from 1978 to 1996, but have since repealed them. Recent polls show the idea is gaining in acceptance. A national poll by the American Civil Liberties Union showed 64 percent of Americans strongly favor making marijuana legally available.

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