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DECISION '98

Voters Back Medical Marijuana in 3 States

Propositions: Also among 235 statewide ballot measures, Michigan refuses to allow assisted suicide and Maine doesn't ban topless lawn-mowing.

November 04, 1998| From Associated Press

The movement to make marijuana available for sick people picked up steam Tuesday with voters in Nevada, Arizona and Washington state approving ballot measures to legalize the drug under certain circumstances.

Nevada passed a constitutional amendment approving medical marijuana, pending a second "yes" vote in 2000. Washington's approval came one year after voters turned down a broader measure that would have left the door open to legalizing other drugs.

Arizonans rejected an alternative "go-slow" law in which legislators urged a delay until the federal government approves the drug. Their vote, by a margin of 57% to 43%, reaffirms their 1996 approval of medical marijuana.

"I think they voted that way because they are angry at the Legislature for gutting what they did two years ago," said John Buttrick of The People Have Spoken, the group that led the fight against the Legislature's measure.

Michigan voters tackled another medical question, soundly rejecting physician-assisted suicide. Opponents said the vote reflected dissatisfaction with the proposed law, not with assisted suicide.

"It may have been a different outcome if they had a very open-ended piece of legislation that would be accessible to all suffering patients, not just the terminally ill," said Dr. John Finn, executive director of Hospice of Michigan.

Taxes figured prominently among Tuesday's 235 statewide ballot measures. South Dakotans rejected a plan to prevent property tax revenues from financing schools, and Nebraskans nixed a proposal to limit the amount of money state and local governments could raise through taxes.

Missouri voters amended their constitution to legalize slot machines on casinos that float in artificial moats. They had already approved riverboat gambling in 1992, but gambling foes said the "boats in moats"--10 of the state's 16 casinos--didn't qualify.

Missourians also outlawed animal fighting, specifically cockfighting and bear fighting. Cockfighting was also on its way out in Arizona, and dove hunting prevailed in Ohio, where voters turned away a ban on the sport.

Massachusetts voters passed a plan to give political candidates substantial public money if they agree to voluntarily limit their spending and raise certain small contributions. A similar measure is on the Arizona ballot.

Massachusetts voters also affirmed their support of the state's new electricity deregulation deal, which opponents had said was too friendly to utilities and would not save money for average consumers.

Other ballot initiatives included proposed bans on gay marriage, affirmative action, forest clear-cutting and animal traps.

There was also the usual sprinkling of offbeat items, like the one in Newport, Maine, sparked by complaints about a resident's topless lawn-mowing. Voters decided to mind their own business--and not ask their selectmen to ban display of "female breasts . . . visible from a public way."

Washington's decision on affirmative action followed a long fight over how to word the measure. Supporters of the practice favored the question "Do you want to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities?" But the phrasing voters saw was: "Shall government entities be prohibited from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to individuals or groups based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin?"

Polls taken before the election showed most Washington voters in favor of affirmative action but supportive of abolishing programs defined as giving "preferential treatment" to women and minorities.

There was also history to the gay marriage vote in Hawaii. The question first arose in 1993, when the state Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to refuse marriage licenses to gay men and lesbians because that denied rights given to heterosexual Hawaiians.

In an effort to satisfy the court, lawmakers passed a bill last year granting gay and unmarried heterosexual couples some legal rights enjoyed by married people, hoping the court would then be unable to find discrimination if the Legislature subsequently banned same-sex marriage.

Alaska's vote was part of a wave of preemptive legislating that swept the country after the Hawaii ruling as states feared they might have to recognize gay marriages performed there. To date, 29 states have banned gay unions, and Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of gay marriage.

In Michigan, support was initially strong for physician-assisted suicide but waned when opponents portrayed the initiative as overly complicated and improperly shielded from government oversight. The measure had a surprising opponent in Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who has taken part in more than 120 suicides. He said it was too restrictive. Oregon is the only state to permit assisted suicide.

This election was Round Two for medical marijuana proponents, who ran into legal blockades in 1996 after successful campaigns to legalize the drug in Arizona and California. The 1998 measures in four states and the District of Columbia were written more narrowly, specifying the ailments that qualify and explicitly saying that marijuana was the only drug at issue. Opponents nonetheless asserted the initiatives were just a wedge to try to loosen the nation's drug laws and open the door to open use of LSD and heroin.

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