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March 28, 2002
March 28, 2002 - Washington, D.C.- In a historic ruling issued today, federal judge Emmet G. Sullivan overturned a federal law that prohibited District of Columbia residents from proposing, running, and voting on a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. The decision resolved a First Amendment lawsuit against the federal government and the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics (BOEE) filed in December by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and several individual plaintiffs. Alexei M. Silverman and James M. Garland of Covington & Burling acted pro bono as counsel for the plaintiffs.
In 1998, 69 percent of District voters approved a measure to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Congress responded with the so-called "Barr Amendment," named after its sponsor, Rep. Bob Barr(R-GA). The Barr Amendment blocked the implementation of the 1998 initiative and prohibited the District from spending appropriated federal funds to "enact or carry out" any law that reduces criminal penalties for marijuana or any Schedule I controlled substance. Plaintiffs argued that the Barr Amendment violated D.C. residents' First Amendment right to utilize the District's ballot initiative process to engage in public debate on a subject of fundamental importance.
In declaring the Barr Amendment an unconstitutional, viewpoint discriminatory
restriction on speech, Judge Sullivan wrote, "The Barr Amendment effectively prohibits plaintiffs from circulating a Board-approved petition for signatures in an attempt to submit an initiative for placement on the ballot at the next general election. There can be no doubt that the Barr Amendment restricts plaintiffs' First Amendment right to engage in political speech." Judge Sullivan also permanently enjoined BOEE from applying the Barr Amendment to block MPP's proposed initiative.
The separate provision of the Barr Amendment that blocked implementation of the
1998 medical marijuana initiative was not at issue here.
Eight states - Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and
Washington - have already removed criminal penalties for seriously ill patients who
use and grow their own marijuana with the approval of their physicians. The D.C.
initiative, if passed this November, would do the same.