On November 3, 1998, the voters of the District of Columbia passed Initiative 59 by a vote of 69%-31%. The title was “Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998”. However, the Board of Elections refused to release the election returns for that initiative, because on October 21, 1998, Congress had passed the Barr Amendment to the D.C. Appropriations Act. The Barr Amendment said, “None of the funds contained in the Appropriations Act may be used to conduct any ballot initiative which seeks to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties” for marijuana.
On September 17, 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Roberts ruled in Turner v D.C. Board of Elections that the U.S. Constitution requires the Board of Elections to count the votes and release the results. The decision says, “To cast a lawful vote only to be told that that vote will not be counted or released is to rob the vote of any communicative meaning whatsoever.”
However, the decision did not say that the federal Barr Amendment could be overridden by the voters of D.C., so for 10 years, the initiative has been on the D.C. law books, but can’t be implemented due to the Congressional override.
But on July 16, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the D.C. Appropriations Bill for 2010 without the Barr amendment. If the U.S. Senate concurs, and President Obama signs the bill, D.C. will finally be able to implement Initiative 59.
There are double ironies here. The more obvious one is that former Congressman Bob Barr, as a lobbyinst for the Marijuana Policy Project in recent years, has been working to delete the Barr Amendment. This has been noted in most stories about the recent U.S. House action; see here.
But another irony, unmentioned in the press, is that Barr is about to sue the D.C. Board of Elections to force the Board to count the write-in votes of voters who voted for Barr in November 2008. Barr was a properly certified write-in candidate in the District last year, yet D.C. refuses to say how many write-ins he received, even though the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in1974 that D.C. must permit and count such write-in votes for president. The Turner decision from 1999 will help Barr win that case.