Nevada Initiative Has a Chance

Over the last month and a half, they’ve been seemingly everywhere -- libraries, the DMV, meetings, etc. -- with their petitions and pens. This small army of clipboard-holding minions, some paid and some volunteers, has one goal: The legalization of marijuana in Nevada.

Not just medical marijuana -- that’s already legal as the result of a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1998 and 2000. This is the legalization of the use and possession of three ounces or less of marijuana by anybody 21 or older.

In other words, it could be 4:20 in Nevada 24/7 if this amendment gets enough signatures to make the ballot, and is then approved by voters this year and in 2004.

The folks behind this movement, a newly formed political action committee called Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, were tight-lipped about their efforts before the June 18 signature submission deadline. Gail Tuzzolo, a paid political consultant heading up the PAC, said the group was too focused on getting enough signatures to talk to the media.

“We’re sort of doing our news blackout,” Tuzzolo said. “We’re not talking to the press. We’re working on getting all the signatures in.”

Bruce Mirken, the director of communications of the Marijuana Policy Project (the Washington, D.C.-based group behind Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement), was also quiet about the campaign.

“We’re in the process of getting signatures,” he said. “We’ll have a lot to say when it gets on the ballot. ... We’re not seeking coverage right now, because we’re seeking signatures.”

In defense of these folks, they did have their hands full. The group had to turn in at least 61,336 voters to the secretary of state -- that’s 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the 2000 statewide election. Additionally, signatures representing 10 percent of the total of 2000 votes from 13 of the state’s 17 counties had to be be included. The group had only been collecting signatures since May 9. That’s a lot of John Hancocks in a short amount of time, and the group estimated they’ll need about 110,000 total signatures for enough of them to be valid.

Well, on June 18 that the group announced that it had filed more than 107,000 petition signatures with the state’s 17 county clerks. The group claimed it got more than 10 percent in 15 of the 17 counties, although the group submitted signatures in all 17 counties.

In other words, it could be close.

“We’re confident that we’ve collected enough signatures to qualify this initiative for the November ballot,” said NRLE spokesman Billy Rogers in a news release.

So now here’s what happens: The various counties will go through a signature verification process, and then report the results to the Secretary of State. This must be done by Aug. 7, according to the Secretary of State. If there are enough signatures, it will be placed on the general election ballot. If it passes, it will appear on the ballot again in 2004 (constitutional amendments must pass voters twice).

This process, of course, does not count potential court battles that could throw a wrench in things.

NRLE seems confident that the initiative, if presented to voters, will pass.

"Most Nevadans believe that people should not be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana," said Rogers in the release. "This initiative will allow the police to spend more time going after murderers, rapists and other violent criminals, rather than wasting valuable resources hunting down tens of thousands of nonviolent marijuana users."

So, what does this all mean? Let’s break it down. The initiative, if successful, would amend the Nevada Constitution to say the following:

• That the use or possession of three ounces or less of weed by anybody 21 or older would not be a “cause for arrest, civil or criminal penalty, or seizure or forfeiture of assets.” In other words, pot would be legal in the eyes of the state constitution.

• The state would have to develop “a system of regulation, designed to curb the unlawful production of marijuana, for the cultivation, taxation, sale, and distribution of marijuana ...”

• Advertising of pot would be illegal.

• Weed would be taxed similar to tobacco and cigarettes.

• It could not be used in cars or public places, and you could not be “driving dangerously” or operating heavy machinery while under the influence.

Of course, marijuana would still be illegal under federal law, opening a very interesting can of worms.

NRLE is painting the initiative primarily as something to help out medical marijuana users by instituting a system for distribution, and by making it so sick patients wouldn’t need a doctor’s permission to get the marijuana (many doctors have been weary to sign off on marijuana use, fearing the feds).

The petition drive comes two years after voters approved medical marijuana, and just months after the 2001 Legislature chilled out what was one of the nation’s toughest marijuana laws. Before, marijuana possession was a felony; now, in small amounts, it is simply a misdemeanor.

All of this is very interesting, but why Nevada? The Marijuana Policy Project has been willing to pay $1-$2 per signature and shell out big bucks for a consultant to get this measure on the ballot. Sure, Nevada’s relatively small size makes it easier to do this here than in, say, California. And it would set a nice precedent; if this ballot initiative passes muster, Nevada would become the first state to effectively give the finger to the feds in terms of marijuana laws. But beyond that, why choose Nevada for this groundbreaking move?

And what will the consequences be? Considering that George W. Bush and John Ashcroft are in office, what would they do to Nevada if this makes it through?

It’s all fun to speculate about, assuming the petition drive is successful. And that’s a moderately big “if” at this point.

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