There was no joy on Sahara Boulevard in Las Vegas Tuesday night as supporters of Nevada's high-spending marijuana legalization initiative gathered in what they hoped would be a victory party. Instead, it turned out to be a wake as Question 9, which would have enacted legal regulation instead of prohibition for possession of up to three ounces of marijuana, and which many in the drug reform movement hoped would finally break the electoral barrier, was defeated decisively. Nevada voters rejected Question 9 by 61% to 39%.
Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) director Rob Kampia huddled with Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement's (http://www.nrle.org) Billy Rogers and state representative Chris Giunchigliani (D-Las Vegas) as the voting ended, but they saw defeat staring them in the face early on. While volunteers at NRLE headquarters waited anxiously -- nobody felt like eating -- Kampia, Rogers and Giunchigliani, who had sponsored last year's successful bill to make marijuana possession no longer a felony and who signed on consult with the Question 9 campaign, tried to figure out how long to hold onto the hope of victory.
But by 8:50pm, less than two hours after the polls closed, it was all over. Reporters, TV crews and volunteers -- some now breaking out in tears -- listened as NRLE conceded. "Change is never easy," Rogers said, comparing the drug war to the social struggles of the 1960s. "The civil rights movement took a long time to achieve success. One day down the road, we will change these bad laws. This is the first of many battles."
"This was about responsible adults using marijuana in the privacy of their own homes," said Kampia. "This was about not getting your door kicked in for doing so. But our message didn't get out."
It wasn't for lack of money. MPP and its affiliate, NRLE, spent over $2 million in the Nevada effort and waged a TV advertising campaign, as well as hiring locals such as Giunchigliani and former Nevada Council of Police and Sheriffs head Andy Anderson in an effort to rebut charges that the campaign was inflicted on the state by outside interests. But as in Ohio and Arizona, while the prohibitionist opposition may have been caught flat-footed at first, local law enforcement and anti-drunk driving groups hooked up with the federal drug war bureaucracy to wage an all-out campaign against Question 9.
Opponents used a series of widely publicized traffic fatalities linked to marijuana use to great advantage, telling Nevadans they would face a plague of stoned drivers. They also made a great deal of the three ounce provision, waving baggies full of joints at every TV camera in sight and claiming that so much pot could not possibly be for personal use. As in Ohio, there is evidence that some opponents violated state laws by campaigning against the measure while on the state time clock. And as if fear-mongering and illegal actions weren't enough, opponents also enlisted drug czar John Walters, who was all too willing to come to the state and pronounce loudly and repeatedly against the pernicious weed. The drug czar's national anti-marijuana TV advertising campaign also saturated Nevada air waves with what amounted to free advertising for Question 9 opponents.
Rogers told DRCNet that in addition to the drug czar's campaigning and widely repeated concerns about driving while stoned, the effort also fell prey to national political currents. "That conservative wave that swept across the nation Tuesday also swept across Nevada," he said. Even normally Democratic Clark County [Las Vegas] went Republican, and that hurt us badly," he said.
Another possible factor was an anti-gay marriage state initiative that passed overwhelmingly. It is possible, though not yet verified by DRCNet, that a voter mobilization by religious cultural conservatives for that initiative brought out a large turnout of people who would also vote against the reform bill.
As the evening wore on, Kampia was watching the numbers and hoping out loud that at least a record high pro-legalization vote would be reached. "Only three times has marijuana legalization been on a state ballot," he said. "It got 34% in California in 1972, 26% in Oregon in 1986, and 41% in Arizona in 2000. If we can get more than 41%, that's a record," he said.
Almost but not quite. Absentee ballot counts released shortly after the polls closed (delayed until about 7:45 in some Las Vegas precincts because of long lines), showed Question 9 at 37%, and the absentee ballots turned out to be low but not very, with the measure maxing out at 39% as the ballots were counted.
Rogers, a political operative imported from Texas to run the campaign, turned to some home state imagery as he urged supporters not to get dispirited. "It may take two years or four years or ten years, but we will win," he said. "In 1836, the Texans were defeated at the Alamo, but soon after Sam Houston was president of the Republic of Texas. We lost a battle, but we haven't lost the war."