LAS VEGAS - The dawn sky above Sin City was streaked with pink as John
Walters' bodyguards scanned the street for marijuana terrorists.

Satisfied that the perimeter was secure, they put the federal drug czar in
his van. They were just being careful, an aide said. Their intelligence
indicates that some Nevada freedom-lovers don't appreciate Walters' coming
out here to inveigh against the current movement to legalize marijuana.

But because Nevadans might soon try to end pot prohibition - something that
has never happened in America, not in 30 years of sporadic drug reform -
Walters says that "it's my responsibility to push back. We can't allow
major government institutions to become facilitators for drug-dealing and
drug addiction."

Nevadans, who already treat most vices as revenue, are weighing a serious
plan that a group bankrolled by insurance magnate Peter Lewis has put on
the Nov. 5 ballot: Legalize adult possession of 3 ounces or less, and allow
the state to grow it, distribute it, sell it and tax it.

Under state rules, a ballot item must pass twice to become law. This means
that a yes vote on legalization would need to be repeated in 2004, but
Nevadans have already approved the medical use of marijuana by saying yes
twice - the second time, in 2000, by a larger majority.

Early voting in Nevada's elections began this weekend. And with money from
Lewis and two other billionaire businessmen, marijuana initiatives are also
on the ballot in Ohio (steering offenders to treatment, not prison) and in
Arizona (reducing small possession from a felony to a civil fine).

Walters thinks this is dream-world stuff, "a 2 a.m. dorm-room
conversation," but Nevada's polls are dead even - and not just because the
state already hosts 214 medical marijuana patients. It's also because
legalization advocates are painting themselves as wholesome Americans, not
party animals anxious to put the Grateful Dead on the state seal.

They chose a mainstream name, Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement
(even though no police agencies support them). They're championed by a
Vegas assemblywoman who looks like a soccer mom from central casting. And
they urge their followers to wear "business casual."

At a rally the other day, organizer Tyler Whitmire wore a nice pair of blue
Chaps and pinned his ponytail under his cap. And when a security guard
bellowed that some demonstrators were standing on private property, they
nudged their shoes onto the sidewalk and genially cried out, "No problem,
sir!... Thank you, man!... Please don't hate me!"

Campaign manager Billy Rogers, a veteran Texas Democrat, declared in his
office: "This is not a pothead operation. This isn't about wanting to get
high. This is about clear eyes and clear minds. It's not like six months
ago I had hair down to my ass. I didn't. This is about changing laws that
are wrong."

Their beef is that, under current law, Nevada's authorities can slap you
with a felony and four years in prison for possessing more than an ounce.
And how is that fair, they say, when so little else in Nevada is illegal?

It's not illegal to drive without a seat belt; or to promenade on the Strip
with an open bottle of beer; or to summon a "private dancer" to your hotel
room, simply by dialing a phone number posted on a billboard.

Besides, they say, why should firing up a doobie in the privacy of home be
deemed unacceptable in a town like Vegas, where, just the other day, the
mayor was strolling around with some zaftig showgirls, swilling gin from an
oversize martini glass?

It's rumored that a lot of police silently support the pot push; one
retired officer, Andy Anderson, shows up in a pro-pot TV ad. Another
ex-cop, Richard Mack, says he junked his hard-line attitude while working
undercover. He became golfing buddies with one suspect - "a law-abiding guy
who worked, took care of his family, and just liked to take the edge off at
night by lighting a joint."

"We should leave those people alone. I'm a conservative guy, and isn't that
what Republicans say they want - limited government? But is the Bush
administration any different from the big-government types? Only difference
is, they don't party as much in the White House as the other side did."

But to Rick Barela, a well-muscled sergeant with the Vegas Metro Police,
legalization would sow chaos: "We'd have vehicular traffic from all the
border states, people driving in just to purchase and party. Your line cop
already has enough problems.

"We see what alcohol does; we're the ones pulling the bodies out of cars.
We already can't keep drugs out of the hands of children. Yet somehow these
legalization folks seem to think that throwing another drug into the mix is
a good thing."

That's what bothers Erin Breen, a university worker with a teenage
daughter: "Look, there's still something to be said for keeping it on the
books as illegal. It gives parents a tool, it sets some limits, because the
child thinks, 'I'm going to get my butt kicked if I get caught.' "

Actually, pot would remain illegal for teens, but everyone seems to be
fudging the facts as passions run high. At legalization headquarters, Billy
Rogers complains that 3,742 Nevadans were busted for pot in 2000, but omits
that, last year, state lawmakers reduced possession of an ounce or less to
a misdemeanor and a $600 fine.

Drug czar Walters, meanwhile, says that "more people are coming into
[addiction] treatment for marijuana than for any other illegal drug," yet
that is contradicted by his own office. Nevada treatment admission
statistics show that in 2000, methamphetamine topped the list by a wide margin.

Then there's the squabble over how many pot cigarettes would be permitted
by law. Rogers says 3 ounces equals 80 joints (if rolled tightly). Police
and prosecutors, at various times, have said 90, 120, 250, or 300 (if
rolled loosely). Rogers fears that Nevadans will vote no if a big number
sticks.

That debate sounds comedic, but not to Holly Brady. A longtime Vegas
resident, she smokes 3 ounces a month to ease the pain of multiple
sclerosis. She and her husband, Tom, a former pit boss at Bally's in
Atlantic City, view marijuana as "a plant that God put on this Earth for
us" - and they want easier access.

Nevada has a Catch-22. Like eight other states, it allows ailing adults to
smoke pot under a doctor's care - but it doesn't provide it. Patients must
find it on their own, from illegal sources, or grow their own with seeds
illegally obtained. Tom Brady said, "You've got to ask around, same as
you'd do it in Cherry Hill." But they can't count on a steady supply.

"All I know is, the pain goes away immediately," said Holly Brady, who has
toked for 10 years. "I can get myself together enough to go with Tom to
watch football at the sports parlors. Like, it's noon now, and I've had
three joints already. It doesn't make me act like Cheech and Chong. It's
about survival."

For drug czar Walters, the medical patients are a PR problem; as he said in
his motorcade, "nobody wants to deny comfort to suffering people." But he
dismissed marijuana as "snake oil," and said the legalization crowd was
trying "to use suffering people for political purposes. It's immoral."

So the feds cede nothing. Walters figures that if legalization wins Round
One in Nevada, he can still work to defeat it in 2004. And even if it wins
twice, he says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would move in and
shut down any sales operation.

"I respect the frontier spirit," he said, "but we're not raised by wolves.
We can't act as if we're all on our own individual islands. A civilized
society has to maintain the public health and safety. Society has to
provide some direction. There has to be a partnership between freedom and
responsibility."

Pubdate: Sun, 20 Oct 2002
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Contact: Inquirer.Letters@phillynews.com
Website: http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/