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Arizona Bill Guts Legalized Drug Initiative

Policy: Measure says FDA must approve pot, LSD and heroin before they are prescribed. Backers of initiative say will of voters is violated.

April 16, 1997|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a setback for supporters of marijuana as medicine, Arizona lawmakers agreed Tuesday to virtually gut a controversial drug-legalization initiative resoundingly approved by the state's voters in November.

State lawmakers approved a measure that requires Food and Drug Administration approval of marijuana or any other illicit drug before it can be prescribed as allowed under Proposition 200.

Gov. Fife Symington has been pushing to nullify Proposition 200 and plans to sign the bill, his spokesman said.

Along with California's Proposition 215, which legalized medical use of marijuana, the Arizona initiative helped launch a nationwide debate on the efficacy of pot and a reassessment of the federal government's long-running war on drugs.

The Arizona measure, approved by voters by a 2-to-1 margin, went considerably further than California's: legalizing pot and all other Schedule I drugs for medical use, requiring that offenders receive therapy instead of incarceration and calling for the release of about 1,200 inmates serving time for narcotics violations. Besides marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Administration puts heroin, LSD and methamphetamine on Schedule I.

The portion of the ballot proposition that would have permitted the release of imprisoned drug offenders was curtailed by state lawmakers a few weeks ago. Under an emergency measure already signed by the governor, drug offenders will be released only if the state Board of Executive Clemency decides they pose no danger to society. The cases of fewer than 200 such inmates will be reviewed by the board.

Although wildly popular with the electorate, Proposition 200 ran into trouble at the statehouse, where many lawmakers felt voters had been duped by a slick campaign during last fall's election.

Backers of the initiative said they plan to sponsor a similar proposition in 1998 along with an initiative to prohibit the Legislature from undercutting the will of the voters. In California, the state Constitution prohibits the Legislature from tampering with ballot measures approved by voters, but Arizona law contains no such provision.

"This just keeps the pot boiling as far as I'm concerned," said John Sperling, a chief backer of the Proposition 200 campaign. "This has made the whole war on drugs an issue. I think the fact that our opponents struggle and scream and howl is all for the good."

Sam Vagenas, one of the chief backers of Proposition 200, said passage of the new bill showed blatant disregard for the will of the voters.

"There's no doubt they're gutting the will of the people. I think in 1998 voters will pay them back for their arrogance," he said.

But foes of Proposition 200 were crowing. In Washington, the vote was lauded by a spokesman for Barry McCaffrey, the White House national drug policy director. "The Legislature of Arizona has taken a very responsible course of action," said Bob Weiner, spokesman for the White House national drug policy office.

The arguments over the bill split both parties in the Legislature. The Arizona House of Representatives approved the bill 32-24 in March. Tuesday's 17-13 vote in the state Senate came after a debate that focused on whether its authors were seeking to thwart the will of the people as expressed at the polls last fall.

Republican Sen. John Kaites, one of the bill's sponsors, denied that was the case, saying he believes voters were deprived of complete information about the measure and thus "weren't entirely sure what they were voting on."

"The bottom line is, this was not strictly a medical marijuana measure," Kaites said. "This was a medical heroin bill. . . . And if we're going to allow for the medicalization and use of heroin, it ought to go through a testing process first to see if there are any legitimate medical uses."

He acknowledged that while the FDA is studying marijuana and may find it possesses benefits for the sick, the agency is unlikely to ever validate the medical use of heroin, LSD or methamphetamine. Kaites said the legislative action was necessary to counter what he called "a blatant attempt to move toward legalization of many drugs here in Arizona."

"The proponents wrap this up as an innocent medical marijuana bill, but it was much, much more than that," Kaites said. "To me, this is something that other states need to be very concerned about."

Other lawmakers, however, said Tuesday's action smacked of legislative arrogance.

"The people of this state knew exactly what they were doing," said state Sen. Ruth Solomon, a Democrat. "They clearly knew the war on drugs is failing. And they wanted people who are critically ill to be allowed to get relief with a drug that helps."

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