The Nevada marijuana initiative could be back on again. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) and its Nevada affiliate, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana (http://www.regulatemarijuana.org), a federal judge in Las Vegas ruled August 13 that the state's "13 county" rule and its requirement that a second person sign off on signatures collected are unconstitutional. Under the "13 county" rule, petitioners were required to obtain the signatures of 10% of registered voters in at least 13 of the state's 17 counties.
Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller had rejected CRCM's marijuana initiative, saying the group had failed to get signatures in at least 13 counties and that some 19,000 Las Vegas signatures were not valid because they lacked a second signer. But in his decision on the case, US District Court Judge James Mahan has found the regulations unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction barring Heller from nullifying signatures based on those rules.
While Judge Mahan ruled for CRCM and MPP on the signature-counting issues, he refused their request to order that the measure be placed on the ballot. Instead, Judge Mahan ruled that the signatures must be recounted to see if the initiative will qualify.
"This is really good news," said CRCM spokeswoman Jennifer Knight. "We're crossing our fingers that the recount will get us over the top. We think this will get us to the ballot, but we're not there yet."
Nevada Secretary of State Heller was less enthused. The ruling was "bringing us to our knees," he told the Las Vegas Sun. "We're not killed yet but it took us out," he said.
The initiative, which would remove criminal penalties for adult marijuana use and possession and direct the state to create a system of regulated marijuana distribution, needs slightly more than 51,000 valid signatures to qualify. MPP and CRCM handed in more than 66,000 gross signatures earlier. The groups estimate that they now need fewer than 1,500 additional valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.
That process is underway, and CRCM and MPP have put out a call for volunteers to monitor the count to ensure its accuracy. "This process is going to make Florida's 2000 ballot recount look orderly," said MPP executive director Rob Kampia in an e-mail to supporters seeking volunteer monitors for Reno and Las Vegas.
The clock is ticking. The statewide signature recount must be completed by August 31, and ballots are set to be printed September 7. "We'll get it done, but good God, we'll have to throw an awful lot of people and an awful lot of hours into this to get this done," Clark County Registrar Larry Lomax told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Tuesday.
Volunteer observers are on the scene in Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno), the state's two population centers, said CRCM's Knight. Still, not all is going perfectly, she said. "Here in Clark County, we have observers, but they relegated us to the back of the room, so we can't see everything that's going on," she said.
While it is nail-biting time for CRCM and MPP, Knight said the groups are meanwhile preparing to restart the campaign to win at the ballot in November. "We have had a lot of ups and downs in this campaign, and it's been tough, but we hope we will have a final decision by the end of the month," she told DRCNet. "We are preparing to start the TV ads back up, as well as a lot of direct mail, and generally restart the campaign."
Initiatives are tough business, and Nevada is a tougher state for them than most. In addition to the now-invalidated petitioning requirements, ballot measures must pass twice before they become law. Outright regulation of marijuana is even harder; a similar "regulation" initiative effort by MPP in 2002 failed to pass, as did an unrelated ballot measure in Alaska. This time around, MPP tweaked the initiative to address what it identified as voters' key concerns -- youth access and impaired driving. If the initiative passes this time, under Nevada law voters will have to approve it again in 2006. It may be that MPP's work in Nevada is not almost done, but just beginning.