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Nevada missed a chance to save money and stop stigmatizing marijuana users



While Nevada makes progress on dispensing medical marijuana, lawmakers also had a chance to debate ending a ban on marijuana use in the state. Assembly Bill 402 could have opened the doors to the decriminalization of possessing, consuming and cultivating pot.

The bill would have established regulations, such as an age limit of 21, while including a 25 percent excise tax on wholesale and retail sales.

But it died in committee, leaving Nevada somewhere in the middle regarding marijuana laws. “We are far from being the most lenient [on marijuana laws],” said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we are far from being the most draconian.”

Lichtenstein added that with resources scarce within the Metro, Clark County should, and could, focus less on minor drug possession.

According to a report by the ACLU, in 2010 in Nevada, police made 10,382 marijuana arrests, and 9,139 were for possession. That’s one marijuana bust every 50 minutes, according to the report.

“There are 15 states that don’t send people to jail for their first offenses,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the California-based Marijuana Policy Project. “Nevada is one of the more strict ones. It’s still a criminal offense.” If a person is arrested with 1 ounce or less, he can be fined up to $600 for a first offense and up to $1,000 plus jail time for a second. This has been costly, Lichtenstein said. Nevada spent $41.6 million enforcing possession laws in 2010. “Sometimes, it’s hard for people to connect the dots. People need to realize the money we are spending over-policing could be better used.”

It can be costly for the offenders, too. “It makes it harder to apply for a job, rent a house or receive a number of other benefits,” O’Keefe said. “It could haunt a person for the rest of their lives.”

There is also a disparity as to who is enduring the impacts of tougher possession laws. “It is far harsher if you’re a person of color,” Lichtenstein said. African-Americans are 4.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession, making Nevada the 11th worst for racial disparity in arrest rates, according to the ACLU.

A national report released by the ACLU showed similar trends across the country. “[Our nation] has the highest incarceration rate than any other nation,” Lichtenstein said. Contributing to the problem are the war on drugs and draconian laws toward marijuana possession. Only Washington and Colorado have made marijuana legal for nonmedical use.

O’Keefe said that because of increasing support, this is a topic that will continue to be discussed. “Two out of 50 states have it legal,” she said. “Pew [Research Center] did a study that said 52 percent of people think it should be legal.”