Votes could roil state drug war

Votes to legalize recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington state have set the stage for a confrontation between states’ rights and federal law that could reverberate in Nevada’s ongoing war on drugs.

The Colorado and Washington measures remove criminal penalties for adults possessing small amounts of the drug – the boldest rejection of pot prohibition laws passed across the country in the 1930s.

In Seattle, John Davis, a medical marijuana provider, called the votes "a significant movement in the right direction," but said he expects some confrontation with federal authorities. While state laws allow the recreational and medicinal use or marijuana, the drug is still illegal under federal law.

"This law does not prevent conflicts," he said, adding that its passage "will highlight the necessity to find some kind of resolution between state and federal laws."

While it’s unclear how the conflict will be remedied, President Barack Obama earlier this year asked federal agencies not to prosecute individual medical marijuana users and to instead concentrate resources on large suppliers of the drug.

Lawmakers and advocates say Nevada, which already allows medical marijuana, could be one of the next states in the spotlight.

CHANGE IN ATTITUDE

It’s clear public sentiment about marijuana has changed, said Beau Kilmer, cofounder of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, a California-based nonpartisan think tank.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, "More than half of the country supports marijuana legalization," Kilmer said. "It’s pronounced among younger voters, and younger voters are more likely to come out to the polls."

The Colorado law legalizes recreational use of marijuana, up to an ounce, for anyone 21 and older. It also calls for the creation of sanctioned stores for legal sales.

"I think we are at a tipping point on marijuana policy," said Brian Vicente, co-author of Colorado’s marijuana measure. "We are going to see whether marijuana prohibition survives, or whether we should try a new and more sensible approach."

Kilmer said federal agencies will shape what the market looks like – whether they try a complete crackdown on those producing mass quantities or targeting children or take a more wait-and-see approach.

"How the federal government responds will have a big impact on what happens," Kilmer said. "It will depend on the type of production allowed and the amount of enforcement put into it."

Kilmer added that he "wouldn’t be surprised" to see California address the matter in 2014.

"How the federal government responds to these states, Colorado and Washington, will send a signal to other states," he said.

While Nevada allows medicinal marijuana for patients with debilitating conditions, one law enforcement official says endorsing recreational use could increase crime. Medicinal use also violates federal laws.

Kent Bitsko, director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force in Nevada, said the Colorado and Washington state models would make life difficult for local law enforcement.

Marijuana is banned under federal law, but a typical possession case is a mis­demeanor. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Nevada is the equivalent of a traffic ticket, Bitsko said. Possession of more than an ounce is a felony.

Bitsko is less worried about the casual user, but he’s worried about who would be supplying the dispensaries.

If dispensaries become legal, "we will see an explosion in the number of indoor grows (houses)," Bitsko said. "They are inviting illegal organizations to come in and supply these dispensaries."

ENFORCEMENT

Pot has come a long way since the 1960s, when it was a counterculture fixture. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. Twenty-five years later, California approved medical marijuana. Now, 17 states and Washington, D.C., allow it.

Meanwhile, many more cities either took pot possession crimes off the books or directed officers to make marijuana arrests a low priority.

On Tuesday night, broad sections of the electorate in Colorado and Washington state backed the measures, some because they thought the drug war had failed and others because they viewed potential revenue as a boon for their states in lean times. A similar measure in Oregon failed.

"People think little old ladies with glaucoma should be able to use marijuana. This is different. This is a step further than anything we have seen to date," said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who has studied the history of pot prohibition.

The Justice Department says it is evaluating the measures. When California was considering legalization in 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder said it would be a "significant impediment" to joint federal and local efforts to combat drug traffickers.

NEVADA LAW

Nevada voters approved medical usage more than a decade ago.

The law allows Nevada medical marijuana cardholders to possess, deliver or grow small amounts of marijuana. But patients can’t obtain it because other state laws make it illegal to buy or sell marijuana.

A Nevada judge recently threw out a drug trafficking charge against suppliers who provided marijuana to patients unable to grow it themselves, calling the law "either poorly contemplated or purposely constructed to frustrate the implementation of constitutionally mandated access to the substance."

The state Department of Health and Human Services keeps track of users through its registry. In 2011, there were more than 3,000 registered medical marijuana users statewide.

But the law has led only to high-profile confrontation.

In recent years, Las Vegas police have sided with federal law, cracking down on illegal marijuana dispensaries, grow houses and pot plantations.

Police raided 146 grow houses last year, 138 in 2010 and 108 in 2009. Those figures have increased dramatically since 2007, when police staged 60 or 70 raids per year.

An increase in mass production grow houses could overwhelm an already short-staffed and lightly funded police task force.

"It’s just not good for law enforcement no matter how you look at it," Bitsko said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration contends marijuana has no medical or other useful value.

Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, recognizes law enforcement concerns but said Nevada dispensaries would follow the Colorado model. Dispensaries could grow their own marijuana in tightly controlled rooms with video cameras. The product is weighed before and after it’s moved for sale, and only certain people could transport it.

Segerblom wants to establish certified marijuana dispensaries and licensed farms where pot can be grown.

There are two proposals on the table that advocate reforming the state’s medical marijuana laws. Another bill proposes changing regulation of dispensaries.

But is Nevada ready for the change?

"They haven’t gone through something like having a medical marijuana law that works," Segerblom said. "We need to have that first so people can have confidence there’s a process. We’ve got to start small."

That’s what worked in Colorado and Washington so "people didn’t think it would just be everybody running around, selling it on the street corner," he added.

POTENTIAL REVENUE

The revenue generated by taxed marijuana could bring in millions of dollars to Nevada otherwise leaving the state or "going into the pockets of criminals," Segerblom said.

Colorado would devote the potential tax revenue to school construction, while Washington would send pot taxes to an array of health programs. Colorado officials estimate between $5 million and $22 million a year in revenue.

Bitsko, the federal agent, said he worried drug use by children would rise with such a measure as well as overall drug use. He said other countries that have decriminalized drugs, such as Portugal, have struggled to curb criminal behavior.

"In every case I think we’ve seen some extreme negative effects, and in most cases countries are trying to step back," he said.

But Segerblom said moving toward recreational use is inevitable.

"Thinking we’re not going to have it is unrealistic," Segerblom said. "It’s just a question of how and when."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

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