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December 21, 2014

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Lawmakers have mixed emotions over pot initiative

CARSON CITY --An Assembly committee expressed concern Thursday about an initiative that would legalize up to 1 ounce of marijuana, but the most the panel could do was to forward the initiative to a statewide vote in 2006.

Advocates of the measure gathered enough signatures last fall to put it before the Legislature, but under the state Constitution, the issue goes to the next statewide ballot if legislators choose not to approve it within 40 days.

"I think the voters in my district would like an opportunity to be heard at the ballot," said Assemblyman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, who said he has received mostly positive remarks from constituents about the measure.

Other legislators on the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which heard almost three hours of testimony on the issue Thursday, said they would strike down the measure if they could.

"I don't want to put our citizens in harms way of the federal law," said Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, who said she is concerned that legalizing marijuana would violate federal laws.

The Assembly committee's decision came a day after members of the Judiciary Committee decided to take a pass on two other initiatives that would limit smoking in public places, also sending them to the 2006 ballot.

The destiny of the marijuana bill seemed clear at the beginning of the legislative session, when Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, a deputy police chief of the Henderson Police Department, announced the initiative would not clear the Assembly under his watch.

But advocates of the marijuana measure argued this morning that legalizing small amounts of the drug for adults, while tightening penalties for dealing the drug to minors and driving under the influence, is a better way to handle the war on drugs.

"If marijuana were taxed and regulated than the police would have more time to go after the real criminals in society," said Rob Kampia, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group working to loosen marijuana laws throughout the country.

And by taxing marijuana sales, Nevada could reap an estimated $26 million a year for drug treatment programs, with more money left to go to the state's general fund for schools or other programs, Kampia said.

He cautioned legislators not to picture a bar or casino where marijuana would be sold. Instead, adults older than 21 years old could walk into a controlled area where they would purchase marijuana and take it home, he said.

Mitch Earleywine, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, argued that marijuana would be less of a "forbidden fruit" for children if it were legalized.

And Jack Cole, a former police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, argued that the government wastes too many resources on the war on drugs, partly by arresting 1.6 million people a year for nonviolent drug offenses.

He argued that more police officers would come out in support of legalizing some marijuana use if it wasn't frowned upon because they know the war on drugs isn't working.

"There is a peer pressure among those in law enforcement to be looked at as tough on crime, tough on drugs," he said.

A wide range of police officers and prosecutors argued that the bill would give the wrong message to children that it's OK to use drugs, encourage more people to use marijuana, and ultimately cause more crime, as the drug became a gateway drug to other substances and crimes.

"The thought of my daughter being able to walk down the street and going to someone's home who is a friend of hers and see her parents smoking marijuana -- the effect that would have on her, I just don't think that could be calculated," Henderson Police Chief Michael Mayberry said.

Perkins told the committee he realized why marijuana is illegal while he was a patrol officer years ago. He noticed that people he was arresting for marijuana use in one year would be in trouble for robbery or use of harder drugs in subsequent years.

"It came home to me and made sense to me about why we were doing it," he said.

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