Refer Redeux

Are The Voters, Or Their Elected Leaders, One Toke Over The Line?

By Tim Vanderpool

WHEN THE "MEDICAL Marijuana" law was given a robust thumbs-up by Arizona voters two years ago, wounded drug warriors quickly stumbled from their bunkers to predict Armageddon.

Bill Bennett was in his bloodied prime. The former federal drug czar had built cultural malaise into a cottage industry, and blasting Prop 200 was now his perfect foil. "The people of Arizona ought to be ticked off," he told a Phoenix crowd. "What happened in Arizona was a signal...that the people in this country are softening their attitudes on drugs, and it's not a signal we need to be sending our children."

A shocked U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., asked how such a travesty could occur on his watch. "I am extraordinarily embarrassed," he lamented to the national press. Kyl then suggested that the 65 percent of Arizonans voting for relaxed drug laws "were deceived, and deliberately so, by sponsors of this proposition."

Currents Unfortunately for the singularly enlightened Senator, in November his poor, misguided constituents will again judge the statute's key provisions. But if sizzling propaganda is any gauge, this time Prop 200 opponents won't be caught with their rhetorical britches down.

Both sides are already turning up the heat.

Arizona joined California as a national bellwether in 1996, when both states approved initiatives re-arranging the handling of drug cases. They were of resounding importance, representing the first challenges to Drug War dogma since the large--and largely unsuccessful--decriminalization movement in the '70s.

As originally passed, Arizona's initiative allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana, heroin, LSD and methamphetamines for critically ill patients if there was medical justification for their use. The law also allowed first- and second-time drug offenders to undergo counseling instead of incarceration for their crimes.

Critics charged the Prop 200 drive was funded by deep-pocketed out-of-staters. For their part, backers acknowledged receiving support from currency market mogul George Soros, a long-time supporter of drug policy reform. But significant backing also came from prominent Arizona businessmen like University of Phoenix founder John Sperling.

Former Gov. J. Fife Symington III eventually threatened a veto, but backed down amidst niggling constitutional questions. No problem: The valiant Arizona Legislature was more than eager to dismantle a statutory package already decisively approved by voters.

LAWMAKERS QUICKLY passed three laws de-clawing Prop 200. The first sharply restricted the release of non-violent drug offenders from prison. The new law also contained an emergency clause placing it in immediate effect--and off-limits to referendum schemers.

Glendale Sen. John Kaites, who is now seeking the Attorney General's Office, was a prime backer of that move. He says the measure was a needed correction to the original proposition, which "would have released thousands of dangerous criminals to the streets...some of whom had committed violent crimes in other states."

The remaining two laws were vulnerable to referendum action. House Bill 2518 made it illegal for doctors to prescribe any Schedule I drugs, including LSD, heroin and marijuana, that hadn't received FDA approval. Since a federal green-light for any of those substances hardly seemed forthcoming, the bill packed a delightful dose of irony.

Likewise, Senate Bill 1373 was a tough little measure limiting the ability of first-time drug offenders to pick treatment over prison.

PROP 200 BOOSTERS were soon fighting back, however. Working as a group called "The People Have Spoken," by the following July they'd gathered 200,000 signatures to place the legislative measures on hold, pending another ballot referendum on each. In turn, if voters shoot them down this fall, Prop 200 would be nearly restored to its initial form.

But The People Have Spoken have even bigger fish to fry. They aim to severely restrict the ability of Arizona lawmakers to dismantle voter-passed initiatives through their "Voter Protection Act." Appearing on the ballot as Prop 105, it would require a three-fourths vote in the Legislature to amend any initiative. Likewise, all such amendments would have to further the initiative's original intent.

"That's the key thing," says People spokesman Sam Vagenas. "Our initiative has the flexibility for amendments of a technical nature that further the purpose. At the same time, it makes it just about impossible to gut an initiative."

Meanwhile, the Legislature has placed its own version of the Voter Protection Act on the ballot. Spearheaded by Tempe Rep. Mike Gardner, the measure differs from its grassroots cousin by requiring only a two-thirds majority vote to amend voter initiatives.

Vagenas calls the legislative counter-proposal nothing more than "a divide-and-conquer campaign" aimed at confusing voters. Indeed, even the government watchdog group Arizona Common Cause prefers the legislative version.

"Vagenas' version isn't retroactive," says ACC Director Dennis Burke. "In other words it wouldn't protect existing initiative-created law from future meddling by the Legislature."

By contrast, the legislative version (Prop 104) would cast a wider protective net, Burke says. "It doesn't undue past meddling, but it prevents the Legislature from meddling with any previously passed initiatives."

According to Mike Gardner, it would also retain lawmakers' ability to fine-tune what he considers bad laws--such as Prop 200.

"If we we're only talking about marijuana, there would be no debate," he says. "But nobody wants doctors to be able to prescribe LSD or heroin."

Oh yes. Heroin.

In conversations with Gardner, Kaites and other vociferous critics of Prop 200, the "H" word is constantly trotted out like a bitter mantra, symbolic of just how critical this fight is to family, hearth and home. It also provides obvious clues to where the debate is headed.

Most recently, the People lost a court battle with legislators who had inserted "heroin" and "LSD" into referendum descriptions that will appear on the ballot.

Such descriptions are supposed to be neutral. Still, out of some 100 other schedule 1 drugs that would be affected, Gardner and other lawmakers managed to include only the two most inflammatery substances.

Finally, the group fighting against the original Prop 200 is ingeniously called Arizonans Against Heroin (as opposed to, say, Arizonans Totally in Favor of Heroin).

Sen. Elaine Richardson of southern Arizona co-chairs AAH. She says voters who passed the Medical Marijuana law weren't dumb--just misinformed. "One of the problems I had with Prop 200 wasn't medical marijuana," she says. "The problem was Schedule I drugs. That's heroin, crystal meth, LSD--big-time drugs. People who voted for it thought Schedule I drugs only meant medical marijuana. They had no idea."

Sam Vagenas calls that a line of elitist hooey. "What's going on is political opportunism," he says. "It just illustrates the arrogance of Arizona politics, and it's a blatant attempt to rebuke the will of the people."

If so, then those pervasive tentacles reach all the way back to Washington, D.C. Even Kyl plans a pre-emptive strike, says his spokesman, Vince Sollitto. "It's my understanding that the entire Arizona congressional delegation is going to issue a joint statement to be included in the ballot booklet. It will support a 'yes' vote on having the Legislature-modified provision go into effect."

In other words, Arizona's delegation supports the gutting of Prop 200--those silly voters be damned.

Meanwhile, even the ballots themselves are drawing fire from The People. Earlier this month, they filed lawsuits accusing state officials of peppering the ballot proposals with confusing or misleading words.

Imagine that. TW

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