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Today, the D.C. Council unanimously approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana. Wayne Turner, a former leader with the D.C. Chapter of ACT UP, made sure to be on hand. For him, the legislative victory had been a deeply personal one. It was Turner, along with his partner Steve Michael, who first began the effort to legalize medical marijuana more than a decade ago. The two had led a petition drive to get a medical-marijuana initiative on the ballot in 1998. Michael died of complications from AIDS only weeks before the signatures were turned in.
The initiative, led by Turner and Michael, did gain enough signatures to get on the ballot. Then Congress intervened and attached a rider to a D.C. appropriations bill that effectively barred the District from counting the votes for the initiative. With the help of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, a federal court challenge was mounted. It took 11 months before a federal judge ruled in favor of D.C. voters. The delayed count showed that District residents overwhelmingly supported legalizing medical marijuana; 69 percent approved the measure. This did not stop Congress—-particularly Rep. Bob Barr—-from continuing to freeze the measure through amendments.
“It just brought up all of that very, very horrible time in my life when Steve was getting sicker and sicker,” Turner tells City Desk today. “He was hospitalized, and we were still trying to get the signatures. And then he died. And then people got together and… people pulled together to make that happen and I’m really proud of that. It brought back those raw emotions. We made a commitment. Yeah, we did that. I haven’t really felt until now that we accomplished that goal. Here it is on the council. Now I feel like mission accomplished.”
Michael had gone into the hospital 12 years ago this month. He died on May 25, 1998. The deadline for the signature gathering was the first week in July. After Micheal’s death, Turner and others worked tirelessly to reach their goal of 30,000 signatures. They did not hire a signature-gathering company. They went out and did it themselves. Even at his sickest, Michael had encouraged Turner to leave his bedside and keep working on the initiative. “Until the end, he wanted the campaign to go on,” Turner recalls.
Towards the end, Michael was transferred to the ICU and put on a ventilator. He could no longer communicate without a struggle. He could only nod. Turner, in some ways, says he resented having to work on the initiative. “I was out gathering signatures when my partner was in the hospital. The day before he died, he wanted me to go out. And the next day Steve took a huge plunge downward and we had him disconnected. This initiative stole those hours that I could have spent with him. But Steve wouldn’t have had it any other way. His life was about the work.”
The work took another 12 years. The court battle inspired Turner to go to UDC’s public interest law school and to work with other leaders to wipe out all of the notorious Congressional riders. He summed up the strategy in a WaPo op-ed in Feb.: “Congress’s medical marijuana prohibition was nothing new. The District’s domestic partnership law took nearly a decade to implement because of a similar “social rider.” Local funding for needle exchange programs and abortion services for low-income women were also blocked by congressional fiat. It would take a concerted, multiyear effort by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and local democracy activists to finally secure passage of a clean budget bill — a rare victory for D.C. voting rights advocates.”
With the help and support of the Fenty administration, and two key leaders on the D.C. Council, David Catania and Phil Mendelson, a medical-marijuana bill finally gained approval today. Twelve years ago, Catania visited Michael and Turner in the hospital, and gave one of the eulogies at Michael’s funeral. Mendelson was campaigning for his at-large council seat and had endorsed the initiative. “Some of us are still around,” Turner says, “and we have a history.”