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December 21, 2014

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Reefer Redux

Legal marijuana could be regulated and taxed. And the revenue would be split between drug treatment and education programs and the state's general fund.

Legalizing pot would send the wrong message, especially to young people. Foes argue that the drug contributes to domestic violence, burglary and theft.

Although Nevada is known for normalizing alternative lifestyles, it has not been a kind place historically for pot smokers.

In 2002 voters defeated an initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin. In November they'll experience an electoral flashback when they decide on a similar ballot measure that would provide adults with legal access to the mind-altering drug.

The Regulation of Marijuana Initiative would make it legal for adults to purchase, for private use, one ounce of marijuana - the equivalent of a pack and a half of cigarettes - from special 21-and-over mini-marts.

If passed by a majority of voters, it would regulate and tax the manufacture and sale of marijuana, with the revenue to be divided evenly between drug treatment and education programs and the state's general fund. The initiative also increases penalties for providing marijuana to minors and driving under the influence of the drug.

The effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use is being financed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization striving to legalize pot nationwide. In Nevada, the Marijuana Policy Project is working through the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana.

Neal Levine, the committee's campaign manager, said pot should be legalized because current laws banning the drug don't work.

Marijuana is the most frequently used illegal drug in America, with an estimated 83 million Americans having tried the drug at least once, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Statistics show that almost half of 12th graders have tried marijuana, and about 20 percent are regular users.

"We're not saying that marijuana is a good thing and people should do it," Levine said. "But since people do it, it creates an enormous criminal climate that finances bad people."

Because there's apparently no way to stop marijuana use, and because so many people use the drug, it makes sense to remove it from the criminal market and put it in a tightly regulated, controlled market, Levine said.

Selling marijuana still would be against federal law, but Nevada has a right to opt out of the prohibition, Levine said. While initiative opponents argue that could spawn a federal crackdown, supporters of the ballot measure dismiss that possibility.

Levine said the Marijuana Policy Project chose Nevada to make inroads in legalizing marijuana because the state has a long history of being pragmatic and showing a libertarian streak. Nevadans have taken a live-and-let-live approach regarding brothels, for example, and gambling is the mainstay of the state's economy.

"The people here are inherently more individually minded, willing to hear both sides of an issue and make pragmatic decisions," Levine said.

But Nevada's Western brand of libertarian values have not historically extended to smoking pot, said State Archivist Guy Rocha. In the 19th and 20th centuries, when Nevada was the frontier, though marijuana was part of the cultural landscape, drug users were considered deviants, Rocha said.

The frontier attitude, Rocha said, was: "You can drink, and you can gamble, and you can whore, but you better not be smoking dope."

Between 1979 and 2001, Nevada and Arizona had the nation's toughest penalties for marijuana possession. In Nevada, it was a felony for the first offense for possession, for any amount of marijuana. The penalty was one to six years in prison and a $2,000 fine for offenders 21 and older.

Nevada is "an unfriendly place for pot smokers, long-standing," Rocha said.

Patrick Smith, the spokesman for a coalition that includes anti-drug, law enforcement and business groups called the Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable, called the Regulation of Marijuana Initiative "devastating" to what the organizations are trying to do.

"In no instance is legalizing more drugs a solution," Smith said.

Legalization proponents point to the burden that marijuana arrests place on the prison system, but pot users are not necessarily a large portion of the inmate population, Smith said. Under current Nevada law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $600 fine. According to the Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable, only 200 of more than 17,000 offenders under supervision of the Nevada Division of Parole and Probation are charged with a marijuana offense. But marijuana use contributes to domestic violence, burglary, theft and other crimes, Smith said.

"We've got so many social issues we need to talk about right now," Smith said, "and bringing more drugs into the home is not the solution."

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