If the Nevada effort to eliminate penalties for possession of up to three ounces of marijuana was ever a stealth campaign, those days are over. In the ten days since state election officials certified the measure for the November ballot, the foes of drug reform, both locally and nationally, have begun to stir. Since the measure was certified, DEA head Asa Hutchinson, Nevada prosecutors and a Carson City newspaper have publicly denounced the measure, which would move the state from having the nation's toughest marijuana laws last year to the nation's most lenient in 2004. (Under Nevada law, constitutional amendments must pass voter muster twice -- in this case, this November and again in November 2004.)
Hutchinson, visiting the state as part of his seemingly unending "Meth Tour 2002," the months-long, 30-state road-show designed to hype the amphetamine threat, couldn't resist the opportunity to insert himself into Nevada politics. Attempting to play to concerns about tourism, the state's largest industry, he told a cheering audience at the Elks Convention in Reno on July 11 that passage of the initiative would bring the wrong element to the state. "That would leave Nevada with one of the most liberal policies on drugs," said Hutchinson. "What kind of tourism will Nevada attract?" he asked. (An interesting question, given that Nevada is known for gambling on a grand scale and legal prostitution. One wouldn't want any marijuana smokers putting a buzzkill on all that good clean tourist fun.)
Hutchinson also hinted rather coyly at potential federal involvement in efforts to defeat the amendment. He told reporters that while the DEA would not campaign against the amendment, the agency would help by "providing information" to anti-amendment forces if asked. Some people mistakenly believe marijuana is harmless, Hutchinson said.
The next day, the Nevada District Attorney's Association joined the naysayers. At a meeting in Carson City, the prosecutors voted to oppose the constitutional amendment. Churchill County DA Arthur Mallory, president of the association, told the Las Vegas Sun prosecutors believe marijuana is a "gateway drug" that would lead youthful experimenters on to the hard stuff.
The prosecutors also resorted to an argument increasingly used against marijuana law reform measures: Such measures would conflict with federal law. "We would be tilting at windmills," said Mallory.
The local newspaper must have been listening. In an editorial the same day, the Nevada Appeal, based in Carson City, came out against the measure. Complaining that they were dizzied by "the speed with which pro-marijuana forces are trying to liberalize Nevada's drug laws," the editors called the initiative "a bad idea." Noting that they had opposed medical marijuana "because we feared it was the first step toward legalization" and they had opposed reducing simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor because some users "can be a threat to the people around them," the editors now oppose this latest reform. "In addition to our basic belief that marijuana should remain a controlled substance, the proposal would allow for the possession of up to three ounces -- a substantial amount. Add to that the fact that marijuana possession remains a federal offense, and there are plenty of reasons for voters to turn down legalization of marijuana."
Not all the noise has been on the con-side, however. On July 7, the state's largest paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, endorsed the initiative. And on Saturday, July 13, a Nevada state legislator, Chris Giunchigliani, who sponsored a successful bill last year to make simple possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, argued in favor of the initiative in a debate on Fox News. The Review-Journal said the "measure offers Nevadans an opportunity to bring sanity to the state's overly burdensome drug enforcement policy. Appropriate penalties would remain for marijuana possession by minors, public use of the substance, and drivers who operate motor vehicles while impaired. But the measure would end the needless harassment of individuals who peacefully and privately use marijuana -- including seriously ill patients who should have some legal protection, not to mention peace of mind, because they're covered by the medical marijuana program."
While the opposition may have been caught napping during the initiative's signature-gathering campaign, now that the measure is on the ballot the forces of reaction are mobilizing. Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, the lead group behind the amendment, and their backers at the Marijuana Policy Project will have their work cut out for them in the next few months.
Read the Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsement editorial at: http://www.lvrj.com/lvrj_home/2002/Jul-07-Sun-2002/opinion/19106421.html
Visit Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement at: http://www.nrle.org