The debate over legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has always been contentious, no matter where it has been considered. But in America's capital, it wears a few more layers of controversy.
Here, where Congress has the final word in local governance, the debate is about more than drug policy. It is also a battle between residents and national legislators over who has the right to determine the district's future.
In a ballot initiative that was voted on last November but not tallied until last week, 69 percent of Washington voters wanted to allow patients with serious illnesses to use marijuana if their doctor recommends it. Almost immediately after the vote was counted, though, congressmen and Clinton administration officials denounced the vote. Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia vowed to introduce legislation to block the initiative's implementation.
To US government officials, the initiative represents an intolerable contradiction of the national "get tough on drugs" approach in their own backyard. But to many residents here, it is a touchstone for a prevailing problem of life in Washington: Congress can override the will of the people with a single vote.
"It seems outrageous that here we are in 1999, and there are still people who live in the United States and are not enjoying their full constitutional rights," says Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy here.
Advocates of medical marijuana, as well as those who have long been fighting for wider rights of self-determination in Washington, are not especially optimistic that they can overcome their congressional opposition. But they hope that a decision to overturn the will of the majority here - the first time Congress has ever taken such action - would outrage many Americans and build momentum for their cause.
Even before the final vote was announced last week, Congress had impeded the initiative. Capitol Hill refused to pay for the tally until a US district court ruling forced its hand.
In the past three years, the federal government has seen six states flout its ban on marijuana by approving medical-marijuana initiatives. But congressmen say there's also something else at issue in the Washington fight.
"This measure goes far beyond using marijuana for medical reasons," said Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R) of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District. "This threatens to reignite the national ridicule of D.C. that erupted when [former Mayor] Marion Barry was arrested" on drug charges.
For proponents of Initiative 59, as it is known, those accusations are unfounded. Wayne Turner, an AIDS activist and sponsor of the measure, bristles at the notion that the movement is simply trying to legalize "party drugs." "This is specifically for medical patients," Mr. Turner says, "and that's the message we brought to the people of the District of Columbia."
Although there is still some debate in the medical community, many doctors and researchers consider marijuana effective for relieving certain symptoms related to AIDS and a number of other illnesses.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a statement last week calling for more research into the drug's usefulness. Yet it also reiterated that the federal law against cultivation, possession, or use remains in effect.
The statement cited a report released in March by the national Institute of Medicine. As proponents of medical marijuana like to point out, that same report also acknowledges that, under some circumstances, it is reasonable for doctors to recommend marijuana use to patients.
These patients should not have to face the dangers of the black market to get their medicine, Turner argues. Initiative 59 provides for up to four caregivers who can grow or obtain marijuana for patients, because they may need full-time care.
This would allow almost anyone to have marijuana, critics say. But Turner responds that the details of how to regulate distribution, perhaps through nonprofit buyers' clubs, would be worked out in the implementation plan.
How it has worked in California
Such clubs were sued in California by the US Justice Department, but the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this month that a "medical necessity" defense should be considered for clubs, patients, and doctors if they are prosecuted for breaking federal law.
California was the first state to pass a medical-marijuana referendum, when voters approved it in 1996. Since then, voters in six other states have followed, but legal wrangling has prevented some of them from being implemented.
The initiative here is the first successful one on the East Coast, but surveys suggest about 70 percent will vote "yes" in Maine this fall. And a number of polls show the majority of Americans support medical marijuana.
Here in the capital, this issue may fire up already fervent home-rule proponents. But at the moment "it looks like we're going backwards," says Toni Travis, a government professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Congress gets away with it because its constituency doesn't know or doesn't care," she adds.
For some residents, the issue has highlighted limitations they didn't think much about before.
"During the election it kind of hit me that we don't have representation," says Hilary Hurd, who moved here from the Midwest last year.
Now that she's seen the vote suppressed and heard threats that it may be overturned, she says moving to a nearby community in Maryland or Virginia has crossed her mind.
Turner, for one, still holds out hope that Washington residents will get their way.
"An overwhelming vote of the people is very strong, and very difficult to ignore," he says. "Ultimately, democracy can't be stopped."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society