Advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana could be on a real high in November if Nevada voters take the first step toward legalizing the drug in the state, but even supporters of the measure don't expect it to go through without a fight from Washington.
The initiative, which would have to be passed again by the state's voters in 2004, would not only legalize possession and private use of up to three ounces of marijuana for persons 21 and older, it would authorize the state to regulate the growth, distribution and sale of the drug, much the way it regulates tobacco and alcohol.
The initiative, an amendment to the state constitution, could result in pot being sold in smoke shops, pharmacies or coffee shops, and the state would be authorized to put a tax on marijuana sales, as it does on alcohol and tobacco. Public consumption would still be a ticketable offense, just as the public consumption of alcohol is.
It would still be a criminal offense to sell marijuana without a license, or for anyone to sell pot to anyone under 21 years of age.
Though Ohio has already decriminalized possession of up to 100 grams — a little more than three ounces of marijuana — the Nevada initiative represents a major step forward for advocates of change in the nation's drug laws, such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, because of the move to create state regulation.
Even laws legalizing medicinal marijuana passed by a dozen states have stopped short of creating state-regulated distribution systems, which has left people for whom pot has been prescribed and groups that have tried to provide them with marijuana open to confrontation with federal authorities that oppose the programs.
Confrontation With the Feds?
That is also the aspect of the measure that is likely to put the state at odds with the U.S. Justice Department, if it passes, just as the legalization of marijuana for chemotherapy patients and people suffering from glaucoma, and the authorization of doctors to prescribe it in several states has run afoul of federal authorities.
"If they were hostile to sick and dying patients getting it, it's not hard to guess what their position would be regarding healthy people 21 years old and up getting and using it for for non-medical purposes," NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports decriminalizing marijuana, said the federal government has been sending mixed messages about whether it would take action against the state if Nevada voters approve the measure. He compared the current situation with marijuana to the early 1930s, when states made alcohol legal before Washington repealed prohibition.
"I think the biggest question is whether the federal government is going to prioritize challenging a law that state law enforcement is supporting," DPA Deputy Director of Legal Affairs Judy Appel said. "If this passes, it means the people of Nevada have supported it twice. The question has to be about priorities."
A spokesman for the DEA said there would be no waffling on the agency's part, and that if the measure passes federal agents would go after businesses in Nevada that sell marijuana regardless of whether they are in compliance with state laws, just as they have gone after groups that distribute medicinal marijuana to patients with prescriptions in California.