Let’s talk about pioneers. I’m not talking about prospectors who conquered the West in covered wagons or even the polygamous Mormon families who pursued their alternative lifestyles in an almost uninhabited Southern Nevada.
These pioneers built an entire state on illicit activity, wagering on sin and sunshine. They legalized gambling and prostitution, abolished most restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, created the quickie divorce and even brought slot machines into the neighborhood grocery. And these proud taboo-breakers would be appalled at Nevada’s position on marijuana legalization.
The Silver State has fallen to the back of the legal pot pack. Voters in Oregon, Washington and Colorado will all vote on ballot items that could make marijuana legal and regulated like alcohol or cigarettes. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Nevada can’t even figure out how to erect a reasonable system for medical marijuana distribution, even though we were one of the first states to legalize pot for qualifying patients. We don’t even have dispensaries, so Dutch-style cannabis cafes are practically a desert mirage at this point.
I think it’s appropriate to ask, “What happened to us?” How did we lose our wicked edge? Fifty years ago, Nevada would have been the first state to capitalize on a forbidden practice. Now, we’re not even on the radar.
The fact that three legalization initiatives are on state ballots at once is totally unprecedented, said Keith Stroup, legal counsel and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Efforts to legalize marijuana tend to find more support on the coasts than the heartland, which explains their popularity in the western United States. But he still doesn’t expect all three to pass in November. However, even one success would be a huge victory for marijuana activists, who so far have only succeeded in passing medical marijuana laws and decriminalization of simple possession in 14 states.
“Legalization initiatives haven’t done too well,” Stroup said. “Full legalization is a little out ahead of what a lot of people are comfortable with.”
There’s a good chance that at least one of the states will pass a legalization measure, which should be thoroughly embarrassing to Sin City voters. So why didn’t Nevada get there first, and stake our claim to unfettered inebriation before those hippies in the Pacific Northwest?
Well, the short answer is money. Ballot initiatives are expensive propositions. It takes a lot of money to get one on the ballot, and to provide advertising and voter education. Proponents of California’s Proposition 19 spent more than $3 million in 2010 and lost by a nose. Legalization supporters in Colorado have raised more than $3 million, and all three campaigns have significant financial support.
In Nevada, no one has stepped up to underwrite the effort to legally get stoned. Stroup said that NORML has been watching Nevada, and thinks the state has potential. But it probably won’t be the first state, or even one of the earliest, to legalize pot.
David Schwarz, the man behind Nevadans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, began to gather signatures in 2010 for a ballot initiative. A sex scandal at the Marijuana Policy Project, the national group that was supporting the effort, forced the organization to pull out of Nevada and several other states. Schwarz has since moved to North Dakota, where he is working on a campaign to make medical marijuana legal. Washington, Oregon and Colorado all have a large base of marijuana advocates, he said. A lot of people in Nevada are sympathetic to legalization, but the issue just doesn’t have the same level of popular support.
“It’s an issue that doesn’t hit as hard here,” Schwarz said.
After the Marijuana Policy Project pulled out of Nevada, two chapters of NORML moved in. The Southern Nevada chapter folded soon after it started.
The Marijuana Policy Project has no immediate plans to return to Nevada, said spokesman Morgan Fox. Its website features a 2012 strategic plan that mentions medi-pot and legalization measures across the country. Nevada doesn’t make an appearance. After the election, the group will release a new strategic plan that could include Nevada, Fox said, although it’s certainly not a guarantee.
“At this point, it’s just conjecture,” he said.
Marijuana activists in the Silver State have more immediate concerns. The state’s medical marijuana law is being challenged in state court, and patients are lobbying the Legislature to institute a legal dispensary system. Legalization probably won’t happen until the state fixes its medical marijuana program, which could happen in the upcoming legislative session, Schwarz said.
Still, there are big obstacles to full legalization in Nevada. Casino companies and law enforcement are not likely to support it, Schwarz said. However, libertarian-leaning Republicans might end up supporting such a measure. If one of the ballot initiatives passes this fall, it will make it easier for activists in Nevada. This state has become more timid about breaking moral taboos, but once the door is open, Nevada may eventually walk on through.
“Nevada is one of the states where people want to do this,” Schwarz said. “They just don’t want to be the first.”