If you thought the only problem with the last budget deal was a lack of tax and spending cuts, think again. Congress attached a rider to the omnibus spending bill to snuff out a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Washington, D.C.
The rider, introduced by Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), prohibited the District from spending any funds in the fiscal 1999 budget on Initiative 59, which would allow the use of pot as medicine upon the oral or written recommendation of a licensed physician. Barr contends that the prohibition extends even to public money used to finance the printing and counting of ballots. Since ballots had already been printed by the time the spending bill was passed, D.C. residents were able to vote on the initiative, which passed with 69 percent support, according to exit polls. But Barr's rider has prevented the vote from being officially counted and certified, a process requiring a negligible amount of public funds.
"The American people don't want federal money used to hold a referendum on the use of mind-altering drugs," Barr snaps when asked why Congress should pre-empt democracy in D.C. "If [D.C. residents] want to hold this kind of initiative with their own money, they are free to do so."
Unfortunately for D.C. residents, they're not allowed to do that. Election results can be certified only by public workers. And since Congress operates the District of Columbia, even local tax money is considered federal money.
Supporters of the initiative, who worked for over a year to get it on the ballot, are mounting a legal challenge to Congress' intervention. The American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court asserting that the rider is "viewpoint discriminatory." Once an initiative process has been created, the ACLU argues, Congress cannot block measures it finds objectionable.
"This isn't Bosnia," says Wayne Turner, the head of ACT-UP, the gay rights advocacy group responsible for getting Initiative 59 on the ballot. "We played by the rules and gathered 32,000 signatures so the people could decide."