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Pot Matters: When Sin City Made Marijuana a Felony

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Once upon a time the possession of marijuana in Nevada was a felony crime punishable by up to six years imprisonment.

Marijuana is currently decriminalized in Nevada; possession of an ounce or less is punishable by a fine. The state also has a medical marijuana program. More importantly, the citizens of Nevada will be voting on a measure this fall to legalize marijuana in the state.

But let’s talk about the bad old days—a reminder than even full legalization won’t erase the destructive legal games that accompanied weed demonization over decades. A 1982 article in the journal Social Problems by John F. Galliher and John Ray Cross addressed the odd situation in Nevada at the time—in which casino gambling and prostitution thrived but in which “first-offense possession of the slightest amount of marihuana [sic] is a felony.”

At the time, first-offense possession had been reduced to a misdemeanor in every state of the nation except Nevada. Galliher and Cross explored why Nevada had been the hold out. (“Marihuana,” incidentally, was a common alternate spelling back then.)

In the 1930s the price of silver declined significantly, ruining the states’ mining industry. Nevada’s nickname was and is the Silver State—a sign of how devastating this turn of events was. Economic pressure in the ensuing years was instrumental in establishment of legalized casino gambling, and eventually prostitution, everywhere except in Law Vegas , to protect the casino industry from getting a bad reputation from any association with prostitution.

In the 1960s, as in the rest of America, it became clear that the use of illegal drugs was on the rise in Nevada, especially among young people and students.

However, the legislature decided that it was really outsiders that were responsible for Nevada’s drug problem, particularly outsiders from California and Mexico. According to Galliher and Cross, Nevada’s leaders’ spin on the topic was that most crime was “committed by Californians and others from out of state, while the crime rate among Nevadans was low. The director of the Nevada State Crime Commission agreed that tourism was a substantial cause for the state’s high crime rate.”

The facts tell a different story. According to both state data and the authors’ own research “non-residents made up a minority of those charged or convicted of crimes, including drug offenses.”

But residents and political leaders insisted that blame fell on outsiders. Consequently, even though the state’s harsh marijuana laws were rarely prosecuted to their full extent, “many respondents [told Galliher and Cross] that high drug penalties in Nevada were designed to keep out drug traffickers from California.”

Even more interesting is that Nevadans believed that having the most severe marihuana penalties in the United States “gave the state a more respectable image than it might have had otherwise, given its notorious reputation for gambling and prostitution.” According to one district attorney, “We are scared to death that we might look so wide open and permissive to outsiders with our gambling, and all, that the federal government might outlaw everything here. High drug penalties, even though we don’t use them, make us look better.”

Faced with attempts to modify the marijuana laws Nevada’s political leaders fell back on what are now, decades later, obviously clichéd and discredited notions. As explained by Galliher and Cross:

“A member of the assembly explained the difference between gambling and marihuana: “We feel gaming is an industry, not a vice like drugs. We don’t feel gaming is bad since we don’t engage in it—it doesn’t hurt us.” The president pro tem of the Senate said: “Marihuana is bad but alcohol is a fact of life. . . . If we would reduce penalties for drugs, the Nevada state government would be encouraging drug use.” A member of the Assembly explained: “Gambling and drinking are a financial boon to the state but marihuana doesn’t generate any revenue.”

“The majority leader of the Senate recalled: “Drug penalties in Nevada have been increased in the last 20 years and there is no sentiment at all in Las Vegas [his district] to decrease penalties.” Another senator claimed: “You can’t connect gambling and prostitution with liberalism—we are tough on all crime in Nevada.” The head of the legislative research department agreed: “This is the most conservative legislature in the United States and this shows up in our drug laws.” A number of police officers, judges, and other state officials emphasized the conservative character of Nevada, its citizens and legislature.”

Galliher and Cross conclude that blaming drug problems on outsiders was a convenient way to avoid moral responsibility, and that severe marijuana penalties were used by Nevada’s political leaders to demonstrate that despite legalized casino gambling and prostitution the state still had high moral standards.

However, one of the things made clear from Galliher and Cross’ research is that in this time period Nevada “seldom enforces a law which would require severe legal action against local citizens.” In other words, this is an extreme case of the still familiar argument that it’s okay to criminalize marijuana because no one really gets sent to prison for it and the symbolism is useful.

Nevada has come a long way since 1982, and the state deserves praise for decriminalizing marijuana possession, legalizing medical marijuana, and for the current vote on marijuana legalization. Their history, though, is a vivid reminder of the hypocrisy of marijuana prohibition and the moral bankruptcy of many of its supporters today who fall back on the same arguments Nevadans used to defend the nation’s most severe marijuana laws in the early 1980s to oppose legalization today.

Previously in Pot Matters:  The Drug Czar Is on Drugs

For all of Jon Gettman’s Pot Matters columns, click here.

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