September 8, 1996 in Nation/World

Pot Proponents Taking To The Ballot Boxes

Helen O'Neill Associated Press

In this age of politicians touting family values, the issue of legalized marijuana is still popping up in election campaigns.

California voters will decide in November whether to legalize pot for medical purposes. In several states, candidates for various elective offices are openly plugging pot as part of their platforms.

None of these candidates or their parties expects to win many votes. Most acknowledge they are fringe groups appealing only to the converted. But they’re watching California closely, viewing pot by prescription as a foot in the door.

Regardless of whether the California measure passes, it ensures widespread attention that could give movements in other states a boost, said Joan Ponessa of New Jersey Public Affairs Research Institute, which studies ballot initiatives.

“Getting the issue on the ballot is success enough,” she averred.

“California could make a huge statement if it passes,” said Paul Armentano, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “What happens there could have big impact in other states.”

But at the same time, marijuana is drawing negative publicity.

A government report in August showed that drug use by teenagers rose from 1992 to 1995, following a decade of decline. In 1994, it said, an estimated 2.3 million people started using marijuana.

Presidential candidate Bob Dole called the figures “nothing short of a national disgrace,” and blamed the Clinton administration.

Dole’s attack comes against a backdrop of petitions circulated in various places around the country this year that propose such things as selling the drug in liquor stores, taxing it to pay for schools, and permitting the cultivation of industrial hemp, the plant’s tough fiber that can be used for paper and rope.

There are also perpetual pro-pot politicians - people like Caroline Killeen, a former Catholic nun from Arizona who calls herself “The Hemp Lady.” The 70-year-old activist has run for president in every election since 1976, and is raising money by selling “Let Clinton Inhale” bumper stickers.

In Washington, state employee Bob Owen, treasurer of the Washington Hemp Education Network, is running in the Sept. 17 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

And in Minnesota, the Grassroots Party split over marijuana, leading to a splinter group called the Independent Grassroots Party.

Proposals similar to the California ballot measure have passed the state’s legislature twice, only to be vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

California’s ballot measure, Proposition 215, stresses medical issues. Among other things, proponents say marijuana eases the symptoms of AIDS and glaucoma and improves appetite for cancer patients suffering through chemotherapy.

The headquarters for California’s Proposition 215 campaign was at San Francisco’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club, which sold marijuana for health purposes.

After operating opening for five years without interference from the city, the club was raided in August by state drug agents who claimed it was a conduit for illegal drug dealers.

Opponents say legalizing marijuana would exacerbate drug abuse, especially among young people.

“The danger is that kids get the message that drugs are no big deal,” said Leigh Leventhal of Partnership For a Drug-Free America, which opposes the legalization of marijuana.

Armentano of NORML dismisses that theory. “If that was case, Bill Clinton, Susan Molinari and Clarence Thomas would all have gone on to harder drugs,” he said.

Although 10 state legislatures, including California, have decriminalized marijuana, meaning people can be fined but not imprisoned for possessing small amounts, legalization has not fared well on the ballot.

The only statewide marijuana-related ballot initiative that ever passed was in Alaska in 1990 - and that was a measure to re-criminalize possession of the drug.

Until that vote, Alaskans had been allowed to possess less than 4 ounces of pot in their homes because of a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling.

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