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Medicinal marijuana Gains Support

November 4, 1998

Oregon voters rejected a campaign to send small-time marijuana users to jail and appeared ready to join voters in Alaska, Arizona, Nevada and Washington state in approving medicinal uses for pot.

``I think people are tired of building jails and prisons,″ said Lee Berger, an Oregon attorney who defends people facing charges for using marijuana as medicine. ``If we have limited jail space we ought to use it for people who are really threats to public safety.″

With 31 percent of Oregon’s precincts reporting, a ballot proposal to get tough on pot was trailing 67 percent to 33 percent; the medical marijuana measure was leading 55 percent to 45 percent.

Supporters of these ballot measures say smoking marijuana can ease pain, bring back appetite, reduce the eye pressure of glaucoma, and lessen nausea from cancer chemotherapy.

California has legalized marijuana for medical use, and support for Tuesday’s measures came from billionaire philanthropist George Soros and the California-based Americans for Medical Rights.

Alaska’s marijuana measure passed despite an advertising effort by opponents who enlisted former first lady Barbara Bush.

``We got a late start,″ said Matthew Fagnani, chairman of Alaskans for Truth on the Medical Marijuana Initiative. ``If we had one more week and a little more money, we could have turned it around.″ Foes of the measure warn it will lead to wider drug use.

But the Alaska measure was endorsed by several medical groups, including the state chapter of the American Medical Association and the Alaska Nurses Association, who said the initiative’s language was written tightly enough to protect against abuse.

To qualify, a patient will need a doctor’s recommendation that marijuana would help, and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services would establish a registry of people entitled to use medical marijuana. Patients could also get identification cards to protect against arrest.

Arizona voters repeated their 1996 approval of allowing doctors to prescribe pot and some other illicit drugs for the seriously ailing.

Nevada voters agreed to change the state constitution and allow people with catastrophic illnesses such as cancer, AIDS and glaucoma to get marijuana prescriptions. To take effect, voters must approve the measure again in 2000, but the issue may not be settled if they do. The state attorney general’s office said it would take no action on such a measure unless federal law is changed.

The Washington state measure lets patients with certain terminal and debilitating illnesses, or their care-givers, to grow and keep a 60-day supply of marijuana.

Arizona voters rejected their legislators’ requirement that pot first gain federal approval before the drugs could be prescribed.

Whether Washington, D.C., voters agreed to allow marijuana for certain illnesses remains unknown.

Election officials chose to conceal results since Congress, which controls the capital’s budget, opposes legalization and cut funding for the initiative. The American Civil Liberties Union said it would request the tallies using the Freedom of Information Act.

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