Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006 | 7:24 a.m.
The roots of Nevada's ballot measure to legalize marijuana stretch all the way to Cleveland and New Zealand.
Because if a now-retired auto insurance billionaire from Cleveland had not gotten busted for pot possession in New Zealand, Question 7 might never have made it to the Nov. 7 ballot.
Question 7, billed as the Regulation of Marijuana Initiative, would permit individuals 21 and older to buy and possess up to one ounce of marijuana in Nevada while allowing the state to collect taxes on its growth and retail sale.
As one of only two marijuana initiatives on statewide ballots this fall, Question 7 will put Nevada in the national spotlight, regardless of the election's outcome. The other initiative is in Colorado, where voters are being asked to adopt statewide Denver's law legalizing up to an ounce of marijuana possession for adults in that city.
Television ads to date on Question 7 have been extensive - and entirely one-sided.
The pro-Question 7 Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana has purchased $678,960 worth of ads on the four major Southern Nevada TV stations for the final weeks of the campaign, according to records at channels 3, 5, 8 and 13. In contrast, the anti-marijuana coalition of law enforcement and business interests known as the Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable is not spending a penny on TV.
Despite that spending imbalance, recent political history suggests that the election is far from a sure thing for proponents.
Although Nevada is one of 12 states that has approved marijuana for medicinal purposes, voters in 2002 overwhelmingly defeated a state ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana possession for all adults. And pro-marijuana forces failed in their bid to get another initiative on the 2004 ballot.
As in 2002, the pro-marijuana effort this year has been financed mostly by the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, backed primarily by retired auto insurance executive Peter Lewis of Cleveland. The group also has backed proposed marijuana legislation in several other states.
Lewis, the retired chief executive of Progressive Auto Insurance Co., one of the nation's biggest auto insurers, was a major financial backer of Americans for Medical Rights, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based group that sponsored Nevada's successful 1998 medical marijuana initiative. His money also helped bankroll the failed 2002 ballot measure, and Lewis also has financed efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union to litigate against drug laws.
According to a Wall Street Journal story, Lewis was arrested in New Zealand in 2000 for possession of marijuana and hashish, but was released after making a donation to a local drug rehabilitation center. He told the newspaper that he became involved in efforts to change marijuana laws because, "I have seen it for quite a while as pure patriotism to try to change a policy that is sillier than Prohibition."
Neal Levine, a Las Vegan who is managing the Question 7 campaign, argues that this year's ballot measure has a better chance of approval than the proposed constitutional amendment that failed in 2002 because it is more restrictive and more tightly written.
In addition to the 1 ounce possession limit, the measure would stiffen the criminal penalties for selling marijuana to minors, limit sales to certain types of retailers and double from 20 to 40 years the maximum prison term that a motorist could receive for causing death or substantial bodily harm while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
"Marijuana use is already prevalent in our society," Levine said. "If Question 7 passes, it would probably be statistically improbable that you would have a huge jump in marijuana use. Anybody who wants to use it can already get it. The problem is that the current laws don't work.
"What marijuana laws are doing now is funneling millions of dollars to violent criminals."
The TV ads promoting Question 7 chastise law enforcement for, from proponents' perspective, wasting police officers' time on marijuana arrests while thousands of violent crimes remain unsolved. The ads also reiterate supporters' contention that current laws benefit violent gangs and drug criminals.
The anti-marijuana Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable, backed by groups that include Stop DUI, the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, is relying on mailers and radio ads to get its word out, spokesman Patrick Smith said.
"It's easy to make fancy ads and paint this issue like it will be a panacea for Nevada," Smith said.
"But ... voters will see what this does to legalize street drugs, and they will vote against it. We're never going to have a Nevada where you have a regulated pot store. All this does is to allow drug dealers to walk around with an ounce of marijuana, and that's bad for kids."
Clark County District Attorney David Roger also opposes Question 7.
"The people of the state of Nevada are resolute in their opinion that drugs should not be legalized in our state," Roger said.
"For the most part the pro-marijuana group has been under the radar until recently but I don't think their media blitz will make a difference."