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Split Grows Inside Pot's Grass Roots

COLUMN ONE

After its success in California, the group pushing focused medicinal marijuana initiatives in other states is drawing fire from locals seeking broader legalization. It is also getting heat from drug foes.

January 21, 1998|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUGUSTA, Maine — Don Christen passes out pot on the steps of the county courthouse. He holds a rock festival every year called Hempstock. He sows and smokes and sells with such open defiance that, sometimes, he goes to jail.

He is, he says, an activist who answers to a particularly high calling, a man unafraid to publicly pledge allegiance to the drag, to openly exercise an inalienable right to inhale and light.

Now, a well-heeled organization of outsiders from California has come to his icebound environs to liberate Maine's marijuana laws a little bit. Their November ballot proposal would let people suffering from a narrow range of ailments possess small amounts of pot for therapeutic purposes.

But Christen--a Mainer who speaks in George Carlinesque cadences and sells CDs with such toe-tappers as "Mr. Greenbud" and "Turn On Your Mom"--says he won't vote for it. In fact, he's campaigning to kill it.

"This thing coming in here from outta state is not what I would call help. It's botanically unworkable," he said. "These outsiders have just come in here with their own agenda."

Indeed they have. The people who bankrolled the successful medicinal marijuana campaign in California have targeted a half-dozen additional electorates this year. They have learned much over the last two years and are pushing sanitized, highly specific proposals aimed at winning the acceptance of Middle America--or in this case, the outer limits of America--and sending a message to the unyielding anti-drug warriors in Washington, D.C.

In the process, they not only have alienated and angered grass-roots activists such as Christen--who's pushing his own toke-it-or-leave-it ballot proposal--but also brought a more marketable and well-financed pitch for mellower marijuana rules to provinces used to raggedy and ultimately ill-fated campaigns by uncompromising local pot reformers.

Critics of any sort of liberalization say the straighter image is calculatingly deceptive.

"There's some common sense things they've adopted," said Nelson Cooney, acting president of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. "It makes them harder to fight. The compassion argument is very compelling. Nobody wants to look like they're denying help to cancer patients."

Using legislation that lets fewer people grow less pot than allowed under California law, the Santa Monica-based Americans for Medical Rights and its local allies last week turned in enough signatures to get on the Alaska ballot this November and likely will accomplish the same thing in Maine in the next two weeks, spokesman David Fratello said.

The group is awaiting final approval in Colorado of petition language aimed at changing the state constitution. It is in the process of drafting petition language in Washington state, Oregon and Nevada. And after forging an uneasy truce with AIDS activists in Washington, D.C.--who had a petition drive of their own and resented any intrusion--AMR expects to launch its effort there soon. It also is weighing whether to pump some cash into a local initiative in Florida.

White House Vows to Fight

The $2-million effort is being run by AMR and financed by currency trader George Soros, Phoenix businessman John Sperling, Ohio insurance company president Peter Lewis and others. They were principal backers of the California initiative, a successful one that followed in Arizona and the broad medicinal drug referendum defeated in Washington state last November.

The Clinton administration has vowed to fight the medicinal marijuana movement any way it can. The federal government recently filed suit against the so-called buyers' clubs that sprang up to sell marijuana to sick people after the California initiative was approved. Despite that, the clubs are continuing to operate while they await their day in court.

But AMR's proposals are geared toward making it tougher to do that. Under the Maine proposal, people would be allowed to grow and possess an 1 1/4 ounces of pot under a doctor's recommendation.

The states that are being targeted this year were selected because AMR polling showed they were eminently winnable, Fratello said. The group was very interested in moving into Arkansas, but Fratello said support for legalizing pot for medicinal purposes there was 55%, a majority not high enough to withstand the inevitable erosion that would be wrought by organized opposition.

Fratello admits that the group was shooting for the symbolism of getting a marijuana law passed in President Clinton's home state. The whole point of the state referendums is to achieve a sort of critical mass that forces the federal government to stop treating marijuana like a hard drug.

"We've been very open that this is part of a national strategy to reclassify marijuana as a medicine," Fratello said. "If we can demonstrate that medical marijuana is a popular idea, then we've shown legislators and executive branch officials that they can do the right thing."

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