David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 11/8/02
Activists have barely begun the debate on this year's round of drug reform votes -- "Black Tuesday," as our lead article calls it. Some of the losses, however, may have more to them than meets the eye.
Nevada's marijuana initiative, Question 9, sponsored by Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, a campaign of the Marijuana Policy Project, is a good example. With 61% against and 39% for, a CNN report the next day described the initiative, which would have established a legal framework for adults possessing up to three ounces of marijuana, as having been "soundly defeated." In electoral terms, it was.
But a glass can be half empty or half full -- in this case, 39% full. Nearly four out of ten voters in Nevada chose to effectively make marijuana legal -- a clear demonstration that legalization of marijuana at least is a mainstream viewpoint, not the "fringe" or "radical" notion as charged by prohibitionists. And not only did those 39% choose legalization. They chose to have Nevada go that route alone, in advance of every other state in the country.
Add to those 39% the Nevadans who would go for legalization or regulation as part of a nationwide or worldwide reform. Add the people who had problems only with specific details of the provision in this yes or no vote, such as the fairly substantial three ounce limit, but would have opted for some similar initiative. And add to all of them the Nevadan voters who tended to favor it, but weren't sure and were hesitant in these uncertain times to approve a significant policy change whose ramifications they hadn't had a chance to fully analyze and think through, the usual drop in support suffered by most controversial ballot measures in their final days.
Then consider the overall conservative tide, and Nevada's anti-gay marriage initiative, which likely mobilized significant numbers of religious cultural conservatives to get to the polls, passing it by a wide margin. The same voters who saw fit to interfere through the force of government with the private relationship decisions of consenting individuals, are also likely to have opposed the marijuana initiative as well. This probably worked to the detriment of Question 9, but without necessarily reflecting on overall public sentiment.
Put it all together, and public support in Nevada for ending marijuana prohibition is probably pretty close to the 50% mark -- as polling showed more than once. Prohibitionist opponents of Question 9 will doubtless hold it up as an example of the public rejecting drug legalization. But that is only one side of the story.
The real message of Question 9 is that anti-prohibitionism is a cause that is not yet at the point of victory, but is gaining ground and is well inside the mainstream of political thought. Question 9 didn't change Nevada law this year, but it did take the discussion to the cover of Time magazine and TV screens and households around the country. Whether mounting Question 9 was the right decision is an issue that will be debated in reform circles for years to come, and there may never be consensus on that point. Nevertheless, NRLE and MPP deserve credit for taking the issue to a new level. This fight has only just begun.