Legalization Debate in the Silver State

Photo by Dan Skye

This November, Question 2 on the Nevada ballot seeks to regulate marijuana like alcohol. The initiative seeks to legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for those age 21 and older and allows cultivation of six plants to anyone who does not live within 25 miles of a retail marijuana store. The initiative also authorizes a licensed retail and manufacturing industry and provides for a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale sales.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which is also working to advance legalization initiatives in Massachusetts and Arizona. The Coalition in Nevada has raised close to $285,500 this year, according to a June 11 filing with the state. Supporters of the initiative include 10 current members of the state legislature, including State Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, who represents Las Vegas.

“I believe that a legal, regulated recreational marijuana market will help eliminate a significant portion of the criminal drug trade, while providing significant new tax revenue to our state,” Ford said.

Opponents to the initiative include the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which formerly supported legal marijuana but changed their editorial position after being purchased by Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands Hotel and Casino and a major financial supporter of conservative Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Adelson also provided financial support in opposition to a medical marijuana initiative in Florida in 2014.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal now argues that marijuana is dangerous because it has “nearly 500 dangerous chemicals,” “more tars and cancer-causing agents than tobacco smoke” and is “both addictive . . . and a gateway to other, more deadly drugs.” The editorial goes on to argue that legalization is not working well in Colorado, bringing in less taxes than projected, straining health-care facilities with “marijuana-related emergency room visits by out-of-state visitors.” Finally, the paper argues that hardly anyone is incarcerated for marijuana possession anyway and that the legalization would only reduce the state prison population by “roughly 90 inmates.” As an interesting afterthought, the paper also points out the defeating the legalization initiative would have no impact on Nevada’s current medical marijuana laws, which would remain in effect.

Marijuana arrests in Nevada have been dropping steadily since reaching a historic high in 2010 with 10,444 arrests, of which 9,201 were for possession. However, in 2014, Nevada still arrested 6,285 people for marijuana offenses, 5,221 for possession. Furthermore, the arrest rate for blacks in Nevada for marijuana possession (727 per 100,000) is nearly 5 times the arrest rate for whites (150 per 100,000). Also, since 2010, Nevada has arrested on average 1,135 people each year for marijuana sales.

One of the more interesting arguments against Question 2 was published in the Elko Daily Free Press by Jim Hartman, president of Nevadans for Responsible Drug Policy.  Hartman argues that the initiative is not “a Nevada-based libertarian effort” but instead “special interest business plans crafted by and for large marijuana industry donors.” His critique is that the initiative is an attempt to bypass the legislative process where “Big Marijuana’s” proposals would be subject to more “scrutiny and compromise.” Because after all, state legislatures are free from influence from financial campaign contributions and commercial lobbying interests, aren’t they?

When it comes to criminal justice costs, Hartman echoes the argument in Adelson’s newspaper: Big Marijuana “spinners in Colorado peddled the tale that too much tax money, cop time and space are wasted on incarcerating marijuana users. Maybe that was true three decades ago, but today it’s a myth. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, only 0.7 percent of all state inmates are behind bars for simple marijuana possession.”

The other line of attack for legalization opponents is that a regulated market does not really end illicit activity, that even in Colorado the black market has not disappeared. This argument fails to acknowledge the impact of legalization and regulation on the size of illicit marijuana markets. Indeed, the same argument can be made about the gambling industry that has made Adelson rich—it hasn’t really ended illegal gambling. And for that matter, the same is true about legalized alcohol and tobacco as various illegal markets exist for those products.

Marijuana legalization will be good for Nevada, the Silver State, and its voters will consider the arguments for and against Question 2 and decide the matter this November.

(Photo by Dan Skye)

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