As America's premiere adult playground, Nevada has always pushed the envelope on cultural mores. Modern legalized casino gambling was born there, and a 1971 law legalized brothels in most Nevada counties. Now Nevada could become the first state to treat marijuana like alcohol — making it legal, but regulated and taxed.
In November state voters will decide whether adults in Nevada can legally possess up to one ounce of pot for their own pleasure. Only those over 21 would be allowed to buy pot, and the penalty for killing or injuring someone while driving under the influence of either alcohol or marijuana would be doubled to 40 years.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) wrote the proposed law and organized the campaign to sell it to voters in a referendum. The nonprofit has been campaigning for 11 years to abolish criminal penalties for marijuana use — experience that led them to name the Nevada organization the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana. Drug-war critics have always been turned off by the word “legalization,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, which is not involved in the Nevada campaign.
In most states, the modern marijuana decriminalization movement has involved only exempting “medical marijuana” users from prosecution, as Nevada did in 2000.
In addition, first and second offenses for possessing non-medical marijuana are only misdemeanors in Nevada and do not carry any jail time (although treatment may be required). Third offenses are also classified as misdemeanors but can bring a sentence of up to one year; any further offenses are felonies.
But Nevada's present arrangement still results in thousands of arrests each year, says Neal Levine, campaign manager for the legalization drive. “We had 86,000 people sign the petition to put this on the ballot,” he says. “We're saying, why not pull marijuana out of the criminal market . . . put it into a tightly regulated market where we can have sensible safeguards and have some control.”
Surveys show the measure faces an uphill fight. A poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed opinion running 56-34 against, with only 10 percent of those surveyed undecided. In 2004, the MPP failed to get a similar measure on the ballot, when 2,000 petition signatures from newly registered voters were disqualified. Two years before that, marijuana legalization was on the ballot — but lost by a 61-39 margin. Campaigners blame the defeat largely on the fact that the measure would have allowed up to three ounces of pot — which voters apparently felt was too much.
Levine says his organization's polling shows opinion “roughly even.” But Nadelmann says it is “highly unusual” for an initiative to emerge victorious with less than 50 percent going in. He calls the Nevada campaign “premature.”
Stan Olsen, executive director for intergovernmental affairs of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, says, “People know what the drug culture has created in this country, and it's not a good thing. They know that the people pushing this are for one thing — getting loaded.” A former lieutenant, Olsen says the medical marijuana law has worked well, but he dismisses the argument that ending marijuana prohibition would free police to pursue violent criminals. “You can say, 'Let's legalize burglary — it's nonviolent and happens when people aren't home.' ”
But Levine says most Nevadans feel that arresting people just for smoking or possessing small quantities of marijuana makes no sense. And Nevada “is a very pragmatic state.”