Photo/Dennis Myers At a Sparks function, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell jokes with a Reno police officer.

Last month, when Mayor Bob Cashell said he supported medical uses of marijuana, it was portrayed in news reports as a change in his position.

“I never knew I was against it,” he said this week.

It’s true that in his various posts, from Nevada regent to lieutenant governor to mayor, marijuana wasn’t really on his radar screen. He recalls marijuana legislation when he was presiding over the Nevada Senate, but says he doesn’t recall ever having a reason to take a position on it. And we have been unable to find any earlier news reports that quoted him on the issue. So there may have been a widespread assumption that he was against it, when in fact no one had ever asked him.

Still, he said it was the positive experience of a member of his family with marijuana that prompted him to speak out at all on the issue this year. Why, with all the decades of research that said marijuana had therapeutic uses, would he need a personal family experience to get him into the issue?

“When something like that happens it really drives it home,” said University of Nevada sociologist James Richardson.

Richardson, author of several books on religious sects and a former partner in an opinion survey firm, says he has been taken by surprise at how rapidly opinion has changed on marriage equality and marijuana.

“It’s amazing to me how opinion is changing,” said James Richardson. “I couldn’t believe it when gay rights started happening.”

He said some people stay with long-held positions on these kinds of issues because the structure of their lives supports that stance.

“They’re caught in their upbringing,” he said. “Groups they interact with on a regular basis support those views. I’ll bet some of his [Cashell’s] friends are rolling their eyes at him right now.”

The personal experiences such as Cashell described with his family member then prompts people to break away from those stances.

“It may also motivate you to investigate,” Richardson said. “I’ve seen that happen. You sit down to the computer and Google.”

Then, as more information is consumed, the comfort zone of friends and upbringing can be overcome.

“Maybe you were a closet believer anyway, or you didn’t care,” Richardson said. “Because of the people you hang around with or play golf with, and then something pushes you past the edge.”

Soft support

Cashell describes exactly that kind of a process. He said he was particularly influenced by a CNN program hosted by prominent neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta.

“I guess that it was, I was one of those uneducated people who didn’t look at it open-mindedly and after seeing that story and seeing what my relatives were going through, I knew more. … I guarantee it if you watch that show it really opens your eyes as far as the medical part.”

Chris and Hugh Hempel of Reno have twins, Addi and Cassi, who have a rare disease called Niemann–Pick type C, often descibed as Children’s Alzheimer’s. Its seizures can be reduced by a component of cannibis, and Hempel has experienced the way opinion can change rapidly within her own family.

“I think when it touches you personally, it’s a lot easier to understand,” Chris Hempel said, recalling that her parents—both in their 70s—were dead set against any marijuana therapy.

“My parents were completely against it until they understood I wasn’t trying to get my kids high,” she said. Information on therapeutic uses to which marijuana can be put helped keep peace in her family.

Richardson said the wide use of marijuana is helping to erode the opposition to it, which in turn is leading to more people coming out about their support.

“I think the marijuana thing was not as deeply held with a lot of people as the gay marriage thing,” Richardson said. “The gay rights thing is ideological, where there are a lot of people who smoke marijuana, possibly a majority of the population. So many people have smoked marijuana, and it didn’t kill them and turned out not to be a gateway drug for them. A lot of the people who are running the world right now smoked marijuana.”

He also said there is probably a bandwagon effort going on. The more people and institutions change their positions, the safer it becomes to join them.

The rapidity of changing opinions has been reflected in opinion surveys, even in portions of the population where it might not be expected. According to a survey last year by the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of white mainline Protestants and 54 percent of black Protestants favor legal marijuana. On the other hand, nearly 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants are holding firm against it.

But support for marijuana is fragile. A Brookings Institution study found, “Support for legalization, though growing markedly, is not as intense as opposition, and is likely to remain relatively shallow so long as marijuana itself is not seen as a positive good. Whether opinion swings toward more robust support for legalization will depend heavily on the perceived success of the state legalization experiments now under way—which will hinge in part on the federal response to those experiments.” As a result, any effort by political leaders to jack up the drug war again could cause marijuana sentiment to drop back down.

For some people, the issue is financial or fiscal. In Washington, the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecasting Council predicted state government would realize $51 million from marijuana sales in the 2015-17 biennium. In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state would likely receive more than $130 million in the next fiscal year.

But Cashell said his interest has nothing to do with taxes: “I’m more interested in it medically.”

And Chris Hempel said in some ways the race for the gold in Nevada is getting in the way of keeping the focus on patients who need the medication. “It shouldn’t be this hard for people to get this medicine,” she said.

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...