Photo By Debra Reid Nevada law on marijuana would change dramatically under a proposed ballot measure

In this gambling state, marijuana reformers are playing their cards very close to the vest.

The Marijuana Policy Project, which supports a switch from prohibition to regulation, has an initiative petition circulating in Nevada that, if enacted by voters, would retain underage prohibition but regulate and tax marijuana use by adults. It would also increase penalties for providing marijuana to minors and for causing an accident while under the influence. The organization, acting through a Las Vegas group called the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana, must submit 51,244 valid signatures by June 15 to qualify for the ballot.

MPP director Bruce Mirkin says he is reluctant to talk in detail about plans for the campaign because he does not want to telegraph any useful information to opponents. He declined to say what the group’s opinion surveys have shown about sentiment in the state. Last year, in a move designed to find out whether the Nevada electorate might be receptive to marijuana reform, MPP ran a spate of television ads in Nevada and then polled the state to see whether sentiment changed as a result (RN&R, News, Nov. 20, 2003).

“The fact that an initiative went forward can be taken as an indication that we had reason to believe another effort was merited,” Mirkin said in refusing to disclose the poll findings.

The TV spot used in that first round of television advertising last fall (which can be viewed at www.StopTeenUse.com) argued that unregulated prohibition of marijuana had produced a 67 percent teen marijuana use rate in Nevada compared to 28 percent in Holland, where marijuana is legal but rigorously regulated. Teens from the two jurisdictions were portrayed wearing T-shirts with the percentage figures imprinted on them. The argument seemed to confuse some Nevada reporters, particularly those on television, who had difficulty understanding how it was possible to be anti-drug and anti-prohibition at the same time. As a result, they had difficulty explaining the issue to readers and viewers in their coverage. Mirkin says making the issue clearer is key to MPP’s hope for success in Nevada.

“Not just TV reporters but as a society, we’ve been convinced [by politicians] that there is only one way to deal with problems and that’s with prohibition,” Mirkin says.

MPP, a Washington, D.C.-based group, funded a similar 2002 ballot measure in Nevada which lost 61 to 39 percent. That effort was damaged by the traffic deaths of Las Vegas Sun executive Sandy Thompson and Reno police officer Mike Scofield in accidents linked by prosecutors to marijuana.

The 2002 effort was largely a single-county campaign. While some broadcast advertising ran in the north, Clark County was the principal focus of the effort. In addition, the campaign for the initiative was largely a media campaign. There was no precinct level organization. There was also a lack of familiar local names identified with the ballot measure. Many Nevada physicians were known to be skeptical of prohibition, but they mostly remained silent. It is not yet known whether any of those factors will change if the new initiative qualifies for the ballot.

So far, the initiative has been relying on running and re-running the same television spot that was used in the testing-the-water move last fall. That comparison of Dutch and U.S. marijuana strategies on teen use will probably give way to new advertising, Mirkin says.

“[W]e do believe that there are other arguments that we can and should make in addition to what’s presented in the T-shirt spot … Our expectation is that future commercials will deal with other angles, and we are working on possibilities now.”

Nevadans Against Legalizing Marijuana, a group formed to oppose the 2002 measure, is still in existence and will fight the new initiative. Its director, Sandy Haverly, has expressed the hope that federal drug czar John Walters will return to Nevada.

Two years ago, Walters campaigned heavily in Nevada against the first MPP measure but has failed to submit campaign disclosure reports required by state election laws. The Nevada attorney general and secretary of state took the position that Walters was acting not in a campaign but as part of his federal duties and thus is exempt from the disclosure requirements.

That provoked legal action by MPP to force disclosure of the federal funds expended in the race. The Nevada Supreme Court, saying MPP has “set forth issues of arguable merit,” has ordered Secretary of State Dean Heller to explain why he failed to move against Walters.

Local initiative spokesperson Jennifer Wright failed to return multiple phone calls.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...