Initiative 692 -- States Back Medical Marijuana

While supporters of medical-marijuana Initiative 692 were savoring the aroma of a decisive victory, the principal sponsor was already heading east to increase the pressure on a reluctant federal government.

Rob Killian was expected to speak at a Washington, D.C., news conference today calling for national changes in marijuana laws.

He was armed with formidable arguments. In addition to Washington, which gave Initiative 692 more than a 2-to-1 victory, voters in four other states sent the same message.

Alaska, Nevada, Oregon and Arizona also voted to legalize marijuana for medical use. Colorado voters appeared to be voting for it as well, although a dispute over the initiative process in that state meant the vote likely won't count and will be up again in two years.

The victory margin was overwhelming in all of the states except Oregon. But while Oregon voters were only narrowly approving medical marijuana, they were decisively rejecting a companion ballot measure that would have imposed criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

Killian, a physician who has recommended marijuana to dying hospice patients, was also the leader of a 1997 measure that was defeated by voters because it would have legalized a wider array of drugs.

This year, the narrowly defined measure calls for marijuana to be available for cancer patients suffering from nausea associated with chemotherapy treatment, or for people with AIDS, multiple

sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma or some other types of intractable pain. The use would have to be recommended by a physician.

The measures in other states were similar. The only difference: Washington calls for a letter from a doctor, while other states would provide licenses for marijuana users.

The immediate effect, said Killian "is that patients will no longer need to feel like criminals."

The longer-term goal, he added, is for the federal government to allow marijuana to be sold in pharmacies.

Initiative 692 allows patients to have a 60-day supply. A care-giver is to be allowed to help grow or administer the drug, although he or she would not have access to it for his or her own use.

Advice and major financial support for the campaign were directed here by a California group, Americans for Medical Rights, which supplied nearly $800,000.

That group is principally supported by three men: billionaire George Soros of New York, an internationally known financier; John Sperling of Arizona, the millionaire founder of the University of Phoenix; and Peter Lewis, an Ohio insurance executive. The three also were the main financial backers of Initiative 685 in Washington state last year.

Dave Fratello, spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, said the group will now consider initiative campaigns in Maine, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. Quirks in a campaign law mean that Nevadans will have to take a second vote again next year.

But regardless, he said, yesterday's vote "legitimizes the issue. The pressure on the feds is unmistakable."

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who had been one of the staunchest opponents of the measure, said law enforcers will respect the will of the electorate.

"It is going to apply to a very small number of cases," said Maleng, who noted that his office will not prosecute terminally ill cancer patients but clearly will be on the lookout for abuse of the new law.