Proponents Say Tax From Drug Could Increase Revenues

LAS VEGAS - The state that legalized cathouses and craps is now considering
condoning cannabis.

A voters initiative on the November ballot would permit possession in
Nevada of up to three ounces of marijuana by persons 21 and older. They
would be allowed to smoke it in the privacy of their own homes, but not in
their car or public places.

While law enforcement officials are railing against the measure, state
officials are quietly pondering how the state-licensed sale and taxation of
marijuana may stoke the state's coffers by tens of millions of dollars

Legalizing marijuana by amending the state Constitution is a two-step
process. If a simple majority of voters approve the measure in November, it
would need to be reaffirmed by voters in 2004. The second vote could be
avoided if the measure is adopted next year by the state Legislature, which
already has decriminalized possession of marijuana. That course is
considered unlikely because most politicians - including Republican Gov.
Kenny Guinn - are not taking a stand on the issue, saying they will defer
to the voters' wishes.

Nevada is one of nine states that allows the use of marijuana with a
doctor's prescription, and it is one of 11 states that has lowered criminal
sanctions for possession of marijuana.

Ohio has the nation's most lenient marijuana possession laws, issuing a
civil citation and fining $100 for possession of up to 100 grams (about 3.5
ounces) of marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform
of Marijuana Laws.

Only Alaska previously has attempted to legalize possession of marijuana
altogether. But even pro-pot proponents said the 2000 ballot measure went
too far, because it didn't ban smoking in public and sought reparations for
jailed marijuana users. The ballot measure was defeated by 59 percent of
the voters.

State polls suggest Nevada voters are about evenly split on the question.
The state's largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has said the
measure "would end the needless harassment of individuals who peacefully
and privately use marijuana."

Nevada may seem a logical place to test the issue because of the state's
renowned live-and-let-live philosophy, as already manifested through its
extensive gambling and rural houses of prostitution. And as a practical
matter, the debate can be financially waged in one market. Clark County is
home to two-thirds of the state's residents. But it is also its most
unpredictable political audience because of the region's explosive growth
of non-Nevada transplants over the past decade. Most of rural Nevada is
conservative; Las Vegas is not.

The $375,000-petition drive, which collected more than 100,000 signatures
to qualify the measure for the ballot, was spearheaded by the
Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project. One of its policy directors,
Billy Rogers, took a leave of absence to head the local campaign under the
moniker Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement.

"Nevada is the only state in more than a decade to have passed
decriminalization legislation," Rogers said. "We believe we already have a
strong base of support in Nevada and that the legislature would give a
good-faith effort to implement the necessary laws."

Among public officials, the most vocal supporter of the measure is Chris
Giunchigliani, a teacher and Democrat assemblywoman in Nevada's part-time

"We shouldn't be making criminals out of casual, at-home adult users," said
Giunchigliani, who last year successfully rallied legislative support to
reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana from a felony
to a misdemeanor.

"This measure is reasonably well written and gets to the heart of the
matter: Our drug policy hasn't been working," she said. "We've created a
subculture of criminals among otherwise law-abiding citizens."

If the initiative becomes law, state officials would have to determine who
would grow the marijuana (some suggest the state's agriculture department),
and how to make it available through state-licensed retail outlets.

The notion of mining marijuana sales as a state revenue source, as the
initiative calls for, is enticing, Giunchigliani said. "If people are going
to smoke it, we might as well tax it and get some funding out of it," she said.

Opposition to the marijuana initiative has not yet organized under a single
banner, but law enforcement officials throughout the state are criticizing it.

Pubdate: Mon, 26 Aug 2002
Source: Daily Camera (CO)
Copyright: 2002 The Daily Camera.
Author: Tom Gorman, Los Angeles Times