The Nevada initiative that would remove all criminal penalties for the possession of up to three ounces of marijuana hit the national spotlight last weekend as Nevada police organizations flip-flopped on endorsing the measure. Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement (http://www.nrle.org) had scored a major coup last Tuesday when it secured the endorsement of the Nevada Council of Police and Sheriffs (NCOPS), the largest police union organization in the state (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/249.html#nevada). The endorsement led to a spate of national television and radio programs featuring the Nevada initiative. But it also led in short order to a rebellion in the NCOPS ranks, followed by the forced resignation of NCOPS head Andy Anderson and a withdrawal of the endorsement.
While the loss of the NCOPS endorsement is a blow to the initiative campaign, the groups who seem to have really lost credibility are Nevada police organizations, which have revealed themselves to be badly split on the issue. And some police spokesmen are so bent out of shape over the initiative that they have resorted to repeated verifiable lies in the national media.
"In one week, Nevada police have gone from Robocop to Keystone cops," said NRLE spokesman Billy Rogers. "NCOPS has totally destroyed the credibility of its organization. "People who voted for the endorsement now claim they were confused, but they knew what they were voting for. Some of them have told me that they knew what the initiative does and that they privately still support it. There is no doubt the NCOPS board supported this, but sadly, they succumbed to political pressure."
That pressure came largely from the Las Vegas Police Protective Association and the Clark County (Las Vegas) District Attorney's office, both of which screamed to high heaven that the NCOPS vote did not represent the wishes of its members.
"We still come out ahead," said Rogers. "A month ago, most people and most pundits would have thought that law enforcement was unanimously opposed to our initiative. The fact that law enforcement is split on this is a victory for us. We believe that even in law enforcement, there is a silent majority that doesn't want to keep on arresting people for marijuana possession."
While Bruce Mirken, director of communications for NRLE's parent group, the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), was not quite as sanguine as Rogers, he also saw the endorsement brouhaha as more damaging to police than to the initiative effort. "The endorsement flip-flop was not what we would have hoped for," Mirken conceded, "and it is still an open question as to whether it seriously damages the campaign. But Andy Anderson made a very credible case in the local and national media as to why this makes sense from a law enforcement perspective. We have established that this is open to discussion in law enforcement circles, and that's progress."
The increased attention spawned by the NCOPS battle has also meant that opponents are beginning to both organize themselves and zero-in on perceived flaws in the initiative. One angle of attack has been to denounce the initiative's language barring "driving dangerously" under the influence of marijuana as allowing people to drive while high. A second is the specter of the federal bogeyman stepping in because the initiative would require the state of Nevada to create a system of regulated marijuana distribution, thereby setting up a potential conflict with federal drug prohibition.
Rogers addressed both issues with DRCNet. "The initiative requires the legislature to provide and maintain penalties for driving dangerously under the influence," he said. "It does not bar the legislature from making a law against driving under the influence. When you don't have the facts on your side, you lie, and that's what opponents are doing on this issue."
As for a possible federal intervention in the event that the initiative passes (and passes again in 2004, as required by Nevada law), Rogers scoffed. "The drug czar came here and said Nevadans could make their own laws, that the feds would not make arrests for small amounts of marijuana. That makes sense. It is a matter of priorities, even for the feds," he argued. "And I think the legislature can come up with a program to allow distribution and the feds won't interfere. This will not be a piece of legislation, like California's medical marijuana law, but part of the Nevada constitution. We think the Nevada constitution trumps federal law, but the real question is: Is the federal government going to waste its resources to try to stop people from obtaining small amounts of marijuana through a regulated system?"
Perhaps Rogers is optimistic, especially given recent federal actions against medical marijuana distribution in California and the standard "we will enforce the law" mouthings from DEA spokespersons, but the impact of the federal intervention argument on voters remains to be seen. The most recent polls had the initiative in a dead heat, but that was before both the police endorsement and its withdrawal.
And while the opposition is gearing up, NRLE and MPP are keeping a sharp eye out for possible illegal campaigning and other shoddy tricks. They don't have to look too far. When Clark County DA Gary Booker and Las Vegas narcotics detective Lt. Todd Raybuck appeared on national TV waving bags of confiscated marijuana, campaign organizers were quick to take them to task for it.
"There are a few rogue elements in the police and this is a holy war for them," said Rogers. "They will say anything, do anything, they will break the law in opposing the initiative. Federal and state law doesn't allow police officers to carry around six ounces of pot in a political campaign. Those guys were using state resources and tax dollars to orchestrate an opposition campaign. We have publicly called them on it."
Las Vegas police narc Raybuck has been the most egregious offender so far, not only using seized evidence as a campaign prop and working on state time to defeat the initiative, but turning to bald-faced lies in the national media as a last resort. In a radio interview with Boston National Public Radio affiliate WBUR on Wednesday, Raybuck told and repeated a huge whopper despite the outraged protests of MPP executive director Rob Kampia, who had joined him on the program.
Using his end of program last comment, Rayburn told the radio audience: "Well this initiative states that it's illegal for persons to sell to minors, and what this initiative does not say, and in fact permits, is the giving away or the passing of drugs to minors because it does not specifically address that it is illegal for minors to possess for people, it just says that it is illegal to possess or sell to minors."
"You're wrong, that's totally incorrect, please do not put that on the air, that's total..." objected Kampia.
But Raybuck was undeterred. Admitting that the initiative banned the distribution of marijuana to minors, he then added, "but it does not preclude anybody from giving it to a minor." (Visit http://www.here-now.org to listen to the transcript of the program.)
Raybuck is one of those people who occasionally stumble across the truth, but promptly pick themselves up, dust themselves off and continue along their merrily mendacious way. Here is the relevant language from the initiative: "The legislature shall provide or maintain penalties for... [t]he distribution or sale of marijuana to, and the possession or use of marijuana by, persons who have not attained the age of 21 years."
"It's a shame when public servants use their offices to spread disinformation, and unfortunately that's what Raybuck and DA Gary Booker are doing," said Rogers. "It's a shame when public officials abuse their trust by lying and using government resources to do so."
"These are flat-out lies," said Mirken. "We will continue to call the opposition on its lies, but we'll also continue to make the common sense arguments for rational regulation as opposed to failed prohibition. We'll certainly keep trying to get endorsements and we will make the case on the merits. That's why we'll win."
Brave talk and not unexpected, but the initiative is in a real fight -- and MPP and NRLE know it. The campaign is planning an advertising broadside, as well as enlisting people to do the retail politics of door-to-door campaigning. But money is an issue. "If we can raise enough money, we'll win," said Rogers. "It's simple: If the voters know what the initiative does, we will win. All we have to do is tell the truth and get our message out." The campaign has raised about $150,000 for the fall so far, said Mirken, but more is needed.
Visit http://www.nrle.org to help or to sign up for e-mail bulletins on the initiative's progress.