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Nevada Ponders Legalizing Possession of Marijuana

Drugs: Voters will decide the issue in November. Police oppose the measure, which, if it passes, could add millions to state coffers.


LAS VEGAS — The state that legalized cathouses and craps is now considering condoning cannabis.

A voters initiative on the November ballot would permit possession in Nevada of up to three ounces of marijuana--enough for 100 to 200 joints--by those 21 and older. They would be allowed to smoke it in the privacy of their own homes, but not in their car or in public places.

While law enforcement officials are railing against the measure, state officials are quietly pondering how the state-licensed sale and taxation of marijuana might stoke the state's coffers by tens of millions of dollars annually.

Legalizing marijuana by amending the state Constitution is a two-step process. If a simple majority of voters approve the measure in November, it would need to be reaffirmed by voters in 2004. The second vote could be avoided if the measure is adopted next year by the Legislature, which already has decriminalized possession of marijuana. That course is considered unlikely because most politicians--including Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn--are not taking a stand on the issue, saying they will defer to the voters' wishes.

Nevada is one of nine states allowing use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription, and one of 11 states that has lowered criminal sanctions for marijuana possession. California also has done both.

Ohio has the nation's most lenient marijuana possession laws, issuing a civil citation and fining $100 for possession of up to 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Only Alaska previously has attempted to legalize possession of marijuana altogether. But even pro-pot proponents said the 2000 ballot measure went too far, because it didn't ban smoking in public and it sought reparations for jailed marijuana users. The ballot measure was defeated by 59% of the voters.

State polls suggest Nevada voters are about evenly split on the question. The state's largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has editorialized that the measure "would end the needless harassment of individuals who peacefully and privately use marijuana."

Nevada may seem a logical place to test the issue because of the state's renowned live-and-let-live philosophy, as already manifested through its extensive gambling and rural houses of prostitution. And as a practical matter, the debate can be financially waged in just one media market here. Clark County is home to two-thirds of the state's residents. But it is also its most unpredictable political audience because of the region's explosive growth of non-Nevada transplants over the last decade. Most of rural Nevada is conservative; Las Vegas is not.

The $375,000-petition drive, which collected more than 100,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, was spearheaded by the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. One of its policy directors, Billy Rogers, took a leave of absence to head the local campaign under the moniker Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement.

"Nevada is the only state in more than a decade to have passed decriminalization legislation," Rogers said. "We believe we already have a strong base of support in Nevada and that the Legislature would give a good-faith effort to implement the necessary laws."

Among public officials, the most vocal supporter of the measure is Chris Giunchigliani, a schoolteacher and Democratic assemblywoman in Nevada's part-time Legislature.

"We shouldn't be making criminals out of casual, at-home adult users," said Giunchigliani, who last year successfully rallied legislative support to reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor.

"This measure is reasonably well-written and gets to the heart of the matter: Our drug policy hasn't been working. We've created a subculture of criminals among otherwise law-abiding citizens."

If the initiative becomes law, state officials would have to determine who would grow the marijuana (some suggest the state's Agriculture Department), and how to make it available through state-licensed retail outlets.

The notion of mining marijuana sales as a state revenue source, as the initiative calls for, is enticing, Giunchigliani said. "If people are going to smoke it, we might as well tax it and get some funding out of it," she said.

Nevada, which does not tax personal or nongambling corporate income, is casting about for additional state revenue, and the casino industry is resisting perennial suggestions that its gambling profits be taxed more.

Opposition to the marijuana initiative has not yet organized under a single banner, but law enforcement officials throughout the state are criticizing it.

Among the most adamant is Dick Gammick, the Washoe County district attorney in Reno.

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