Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller announced Tuesday that the petition drive to let voters remove criminal penalties for adult marijuana possession and regulate its sale had failed to gather enough signatures to make the ballot. Organized by the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) and its Nevada affiliate, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana (http://www.crcm.org), the effort managed only 34,947 valid signatures, according to Heller, not close to the required number of 51,337.
Heller threw out more than 19,000 signatures because the petitions on which they appeared lacked affidavits, one from a circulator and one from a signatory. Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval advised him that state law required those signatures not be counted, he said Tuesday. The opinion from Attorney General Sandoval also knocked two other initiatives off the ballot, and organizers of those efforts are appealing to the courts. Spokespersons for MPP and CRCM told DRCNet they may also file their own challenge.
CRCM's ballot prospects took a hit last month when the Southwest Group, the firm hired to manage the signature-gathering campaign, lost track of a box containing more than 6,000 Clark County (greater Las Vegas) signatures, leaving the initiative unable to qualify in Nevada's most populous county. Under Nevada law, initiatives must gain the signatures of 10% of the voter turnout in the last election in 13 of the state's 17 counties, so the error need not have been fatal.
CRCM only passed that hurdle in 12 counties, however, according to the Secretary of State. Even if the disputed signatures had been counted, said Heller, "the petition would have failed in Clark County and statewide." MPP and CRCM aren't so sure of that, and the numbers may tell a different story -- 35,000 + 19,000 = 54,000, enough to qualify statewide -- if those signatures also garner CRCM one more county.
"This is a classic case of it ain't over until it's over," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "There are a number of issues related to the validity of the petitions and signatures where we think we and some of the other initiatives were not treated fairly, and this will probably be dealt with in court," he told DRCNet. "The final chapter is not written yet."
Initiatives are a rough business, particularly so in Nevada. "We had a similar situation in 1998 when we collected signatures for medical marijuana," said Dave Fratello, who has managed more than a dozen drug reform initiative campaigns for Americans for Medical Rights and Campaign for New Drug Policies. "The state is very difficult to operate in -- it is rural and distances are vast and you have to qualify in 13 of 17 counties. That's one thing." The initiative made it to the ballot, but it was close. "The other thing, and it is not limited to Nevada or this issue, is that state governments are fundamentally hostile toward the initiative process. State officials will do everything they can, exploit every arcane rule or regulation, to keep initiatives from qualifying. They try to play a 'gotcha' game," Fratello said.
Two "treatment not jail" initiatives were "gotcha'd" in 2002. In Michigan, state officials rejected a measure because of a minor technical error by one of the lawyers hired by the campaign. And in Florida, the state Supreme Court approved the treatment not jail measure, but too late for the state to place it on the ballot. It could have landed automatically on the ballot for the next time around, but funding subsequently dried up to mount the campaign to get it passed.
"Gotcha'd" appears to be what has happened to this year's Nevada initiative, as well as an initiative aimed at "frivolous" lawsuits and another aimed at raising the state's minimum wage. In the latter effort, the Nevada AFL-CIO has won a temporary injunction barring the state from throwing out signatures pending a hearing next week. That hearing could result in a favorable outcome for the marijuana and other initiatives. Or MPP and CRCM could have to take the issue to court themselves.
"They appear to have thrown out all the signatures of people who registered when they signed the petitions, which is outrageous," said MPP's Mirken. "This is one of the legal issues we are discussing. We are conferring with CRCM and planning strategy now." For Mirken, the bottom line remains that the battle isn't over yet.
As for Secretary of State Heller, he says he welcomes the court challenges. "I look forward to the court's assistance in determining if these signatures should be counted," Heller said. "As I have previously stated, people signed these petitions in good faith; but, unfortunately, due to the fact petitioners did not follow the prescribed constitutional requirements, clerks and registrars had to disqualify thousands of signatures."
MPP may win a favorable ruling in court and the initiative could end up on the November ballot, but as of this point, the petition effort is deemed by state officials to have come up short. In the meanwhile, activists from around the nation head to Las Vegas this weekend for an MPP-sponsored training workshop. The mood may be less buoyant than if the week had brought them different news. But the committed are still committed to the cause; and with state or local initiatives moving forward in Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Detroit (MI) and Oakland (CA), they'll have plenty to do.