Medical marijuana moving toward more state ballots

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Recognition of marijuana as a medical treatment is creeping into the national health-care discussion.

Measures to legalize the substance for medical use have been proposed in 19 states this year. Fifteen legislatures failed to pass marijuana legislation, but through citizen petition processes, four other states could still legalize the drug this year.

Massachusetts residents will vote on a ballot initiative in November that would make cannabis available for certain registered users. Residents of Arkansas, North Dakota and Ohio may vote on similar ballot measures to join 17 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing the drug for medical use.

"It is totally possible the presidential election can swing on the marijuana issue," said Morgan Fox, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based lobbying group.

He cited Colorado where 2 percent of residents are registered marijuana users and several polls find the presidential race a near tie. A candidate's view on the issue could gain or cost him the state, Fox said.

For the past year, Arkansans for Compassionate Care has gathered signatures for a petition asking to put a medical marijuana law on the November ballot. The deadline to file with the state is Friday.

Campaign Director Ryan Denham said there is a good chance Arkansas' initiative could make it to the ballot and pass, which would make it the first southern state to support the movement.

"It is going to send a strong message on a national level to Congress," Denham, 29, said. "It'll show that even folks in the South support medical marijuana use. This is a state and local campaign, but we are fighting for a national issue too."

The state has until August to decide if the initiative qualifies.

Citizens of 26 states cannot petition for initiatives, forcing the issue into state legislatures.

In June, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, vetoed a bill to legalize medical marijuana. The state Senate was three votes shy of overriding the veto.

In his veto message, Lynch said he sympathizes with the need for those suffering from serious illness to use marijuana as a treatment, but the bill did not provide for tightly controlled production.

"While SB 409 requires that marijuana for medical use be cultivated in a 'locked and enclosed site,'" Lynch said, "neither state nor local law enforcement is authorized to generally inspect and confirm that these conditions are being maintained."

In Colorado, penalties for non-medical marijuana use are similar to those for alcohol misuse. The state, along with 12 others, eliminated jail time for possessing small amounts of the substance.

"I think that in the near future we are going to see Congress passing a law removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, or possibly putting it under the purview of the tobacco and alcohol act," Fox said.

Other pro-marijuana groups, such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, lobby for legalizing the drug for all uses.

Denham said people often mix up NORML's mission and that of pro-medical marijuana groups. That is why Arkansans for Companionate Care is continuing its campaign to Friday's deadline.

"Ultimately, for me, this is an education campaign," Denham said. "We really have changed the mind of a lot of people out there."

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act would require people with "qualifying medical conditions" such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Crohn's disease and other illnesses to register with the Arkansas Department of Health.

The department could charge a registration fee and limit the number of dispensaries.

The act would allow counties and cities to ban dispensaries, just as they can ban alcohol, but any registered user who lives more than 5 miles from a dispensary could grow up to six marijuana plants. Those users could not sell or distribute their crop.

The Marijuana Policy Project helped write the act, basing it on Arizona's successful 2010 proposition. The group is also helping North Dakotans for Compassionate Care get an initiative on the November ballot.

In Illinois, the group is pushing to keep alive a bill that would initiate a three-year pilot program. The bill barely failed and could be reconsidered in November.

(Reach reporter Chelsea Boozer at Chelsea.boozer@shns.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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