This is awesome, I hope they get it passed.

Feature: The Push is On Again in Nevada 3/3/06

If the Las Vegas-based Committee for the Regulation and Control of Marijuana (CRCM) and its national backers, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) have their way, this is the year Nevada will vote to regulate and control marijuana. If it happens, the Silver State will be the first in the country to vote to undo marijuana prohibition. (Marijuana possession in the privacy of one's home is already legal in Alaska, but that was the result of Alaska court decisions, not the popular vote.)

In a campaign that officially kicked off last month, CRCM and MPP hope to finally get over the top after five years of working in the state. A more loosely written initiative lost by a margin of 39% to 61% in 2002, and due to a combination of organizer error and adverse ruling by Nevada authorities, a proposed 2004 initiative failed to make the ballot. Last year, reformers used a petition drive to dump the issue in the lap of the Nevada legislature, which unsurprisingly failed to act, instead choosing to dump it right back on the voters this year, which is just what CRCM and MPP were looking for in the first place.

DEA anti-initiative advocacy graphic
Since the failed 2002 effort, organizers have sharpened their message and tightened their proposal to address concerns they have identified among Nevada voters. Instead of allowing people 21 or over to possess up to three ounces, the current measure would allow them to possess only one ounce. Addressing concerns about youth, the measure increases maximum penalties for marijuana distribution to a minor. Addressing concerns about driving while high -- an issue that hurt badly in 2002 when a Las Vegas newspaper editor was killed by a drug-intoxicated driver -- the measure increases maximum penalties for killing someone while driving intoxicated.

The Nevada measure is far-reaching; it would direct the state to set up a system of regulated marijuana distribution outlets. Organizers have attempted to address possible concerns about that by explicitly prohibiting convenience stores, gas stations, and night clubs from being marijuana outlets and by location restrictions that would keep such establishments far from schools and churches.

This time, the initiative will succeed, predicted CRCM head Neil Levine. "In 2002, that was the first time people here had the chance to think seriously about this, but now the idea of regulating marijuana has been part of the dialogue for awhile," he told DRCNet. "People understand we're telling the truth when we say our current laws don't work. They know that anyone who wants to smoke marijuana is smoking marijuana. The question is whether we will finance a criminal market or create a tightly regulated one," he said. "It's a very common sense argument. Our opponents will have to defend the status quo, which is a miserable failure."

Failure or not, marijuana prohibition still has its supporters in Nevada. It's little surprise that they seem to be concentrated in the ranks of law enforcement. "We don't believe the legalization of any kind of drug is a benefit to our community," said Las Vegas Police Detective David Kallas, head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association. "Having worked in law enforcement for 27 years, I understand that there are thousands of nonviolent drug criminals in our prisons, but I don't see how legalization of marijuana will help anything," he told DRCNet.

Kallas' early talking points give some indication of why initiative organizers fine-tuned their measure. "One concern I have is that if it becomes more readily available, people who are weak in the mind will just be able to get it at the corner store," he said. "I am also afraid it will increase drug dealing because people will have easier access, and 21-year-olds will turn around and think what's so bad about selling a few joints to some kids."

Kallas also complained that approving the measure would be bad for Nevada's image. "Our state already has a bad enough stigma because of the legalization of gambling and what they say gambling does to people, and because prostitution is legal. Why add one more burden to our society?" he asked.

Funny Kallas should mention gambling and prostitution, because that's exactly what crossed the mind of late-night TV talk show host Conan O'Brien. In a bit last week, O'Brien noted the initiative, saying "A group of Nevada residents began a campaign to legalize marijuana in the state of Nevada. The group's slogan is: Whores and gambling aren't enough."

Levine and CRCM promptly and laughingly turned that into a media-generating poll about whether to make that the campaign's official slogan. "No, it doesn't make a very good slogan," Levine joked. "We won't be hiring Conan." But it did garner some publicity.

So far, the campaign has been getting plenty of publicity, said Levine. "We're getting all kinds of media attention. Our grand opening last month was covered on every single network's news -- even Telemundo -- it was on the morning and evening newscasts, we're getting a bunch of talk radio attention, there was an Associated Press story that went nationwide. There has been a constant stream of stories coming out, and those help us get our message out. And, of course, Conan. We had fun with that."

It won't be all fun and games. While Det. Kallas and his allies are not organized yet, the law enforcement spokesman said informal meetings to plot strategy are taking place. And there is always the specter of drug czar John Walters parachuting into the state to try to sabotage the effort, a technique he has used to great effect in recent years.

"We're very optimistic, but we're also aware of the fact there is going to be lots of opposition and it won't be easy," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "We expect the drug czar to come charging into town and we expect local law enforcement to organize against this," he told DRCNet. "The fact they haven't been visible yet doesn't mean they won't be there. Particularly after the surprise win in Denver in November, we expect the prohibitionists to have their long knives out."

That municipal election, where Denver residents voted to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of pot under a city ordinance, was enough to bring Walters to Colorado a few weeks later to kick off his national drug strategy for this year. A state contest where regulated sales are on the ballot is almost certain to bring him back to Nevada, where he campaigned against the 2002 initiative.

CRCM's Levine said he was ready for whatever the opposition can bring. "We're going to run our campaign no matter what they do," he said. "We're getting our message out, and we'll deal with whatever comes our way. I think Nevada voters understand it is time to have a marijuana policy that works."

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