PORTLAND, Ore. – The Bush administration's war on drugs stretches deep into Asia and Latin America, yet one of its most crucial campaigns — in the eyes of drug czar John Walters (search) — is being waged this fall among voters in Oregon, Alaska and Montana.
In each state, activists seeking to ease drug laws have placed a marijuana-related proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot as part of a long-running quest for alternatives to federal drug policies they consider harsh and ineffective.
If all three measures are approved, Montana would become the 10th state to legalize pot for medical purposes, Oregon would dramatically expand its existing medical-marijuana program, and Alaska would become the first state to decriminalize marijuana altogether.
Walters has been campaigning in person against the measures, taking a particularly aggressive role in opposing Oregon's Measure 33. It would create state-regulated dispensaries to supply marijuana, let authorized growers sell pot to patients for a profit, and allow patients to possess a pound of it at a time instead of the current 3-ounce limit.
"They use medical marijuana as a Trojan horse," Walters said of the measure's supporters. "People's suffering is being used for legalizing drug use beginning with marijuana and moving forward."
Oregon and Alaska are among nine states which, since 1996, have adopted laws allowing qualified patients to use medical marijuana. The others are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Vermont and Washington.
The U.S. House defeated a proposal in July to stop the federal government from prosecuting people who use marijuana for medical reasons in states that allow it. A case raising that same issue is to be considered soon by the Supreme Court.
Oregon and Alaska activists say their ballot measures would eliminate problems patients now face in obtaining enough marijuana to ease their suffering.
In Oregon, for example, the 10,000 patients enrolled in the current program must grow their own pot or get it from designated "caregivers" who cannot be paid.
"It takes knowledge, money and everything going right to grow high-quality marijuana," said John Sajo, 48, a longtime drug-reform activist who runs the Measure 33 campaign from a cramped office. "Most patients suffering debilitating medical conditions just aren't able to grow their own."
Madeline Martinez, a former prison guard, does manage to grow marijuana at her Portland home. She appreciates the chance to legally use pot, rather than powerful prescription drugs, to ease the discomfort of her degenerative disc and joint disease.
"Instead of being in a drug-induced stupor, I can interact with my grandchildren," said Martinez, 53. "It's given me the quality of life I wanted."
The Oregon Medical Association differs, calling Measure 33 bad public health policy. Oregon's prosecutors also oppose the measure, which trails in statewide polls.
"There's enough stuff out in our world to lead young people astray without adding another one," said Benton County District Attorney Scott Heiser.
Alaskans will vote on a measure even more far-reaching than Oregon's — to prohibit prosecution of anyone 21 or older who consumes, grows or distributes pot for private personal use. It would allow authorities to regulate marijuana along the lines of alcohol and tobacco — for example, taxing it and barring its use in public.
Even a leading foe of the measure, former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea, believes it might pass, thanks partly to sophisticated advertising backed by national marijuana-reform organizations.
"They've got a lot of money behind them and they're running a very professional campaign," Shea said in a telephone interview. "It's difficult for us on the other side — we don't get paid a penny."
Under a 1975 state court ruling, Alaskans already have the tacit right to possess up to four ounces of pot in their homes for personal use. Shea said decriminalization supporters suggest in ads that any crackdown on at-home pot use might be followed by a crackdown on gun ownership.
Shea contended that the state's top elected officials, and Alaska-based federal authorities, have been too reserved in challenging the measure, apparently because of concerns that they shouldn't actively take sides in a referendum campaign.
"They're so worried about offending the so-called freethinkers in Alaska," Shea said. "But you've got to stand up for what you believe in."
Walters acknowledged that Alaskans' libertarian attitudes might benefit the other side — but feels approval would be a disaster.
"I don't think there's another state that's suffered as much from substance abuse as Alaska," Walters added. "It's shocking that we'd have outside groups working to make this problem worse."
In Montana, a recent poll indicated the medical marijuana measure would be approved, and few top officials have campaigned vigorously against it. The chief spokesman for the measure, investment adviser Paul Befumo, is aware that such proposals have always prevailed when going before voters in other states. "You don't want to be the first that loses," he said.
National drug-reform groups hope state medical-marijuana programs will proliferate, and have produced studies asserting that existing programs don't trigger increases in youth marijuana use or other feared problems.
"It's slow and cumbersome to go state by state, but when you do get closer to the people, it seems you have a better chance," said Bruce Mirkin of the Marijuana Policy Project. "If people keep supporting reform measures, at some point a light bulb will go off over Congress and we'll see changes at the federal level."