Asking the right question on marijuana

So Gov. Brian Sandoval, the former attorney general and federal judge, has come out squarely against the legalization of recreational marijuana in Nevada.

The governor told the Las Vegas Sun that, while he’s personally never used the drug, he’s concerned about the impact legalization would have on young people.

For the record, the November initiative known as Question 2 would allow only people age 21 and older to possess one ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Like the governor, I’ve never used marijuana, so my thoughts on the subject are purely academic. And my primary concerns about Question 2 are less about the drug itself, and more about the mechanics of legalization.

For example, this is not legalization in the purest sense: Only those who currently have licenses to distribute medical marijuana, or those who run liquor distributorships, will be allowed to grow, test, distribute and sell recreational marijuana. The state Taxation Department will strictly oversee and regulate the marijuana market in Nevada from cultivation to sale, an approach that won’t completely eliminate the black market for the drug.

Also, Nevada’s marijuana DUI standard is ridiculously low, and drivers can be convicted of having a “prohibited substance” in their blood even if it’s shown they were not impaired behind the wheel as a result. (In fact, that’s precisely what occurred in the 2000 Jessica Williams case, the most famous marijuana-related crash in state history.)

Attempts to fix that problem following the legalization of medical marijuana in 2013 came to naught in the Nevada Legislature.

Not only that, but workplace issues for users and employers remain. The voters may say smoking marijuana is fine, but employers still have drug-free workplace rules. How far can employers go in terms of drug testing? And what rights do employees have to privacy or to avail themselves of a substance that, by then, may be perfectly legal?

If voters approve Question 2, the Legislature and the courts must deal with these issues.

There’s also the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance, inexplicably considered by the federal government to have no medical value. While the current presidential administration may be content to ignore states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, that may not always be the case.

There are plenty of other arguments against legalization, although many are exaggerated, overstated or simply untrue. But let’s acknowledge that if marijuana is legalized, more people will try it. In addition, young people might have easier access to the drug, although the law prohibits minors from using marijuana under all circumstances. Some people who try marijuana may end up trying other, still-illegal drugs. And smoking’s negative health consequences will accrue to those who choose to use marijuana.

But whether some harm may come to some people because of their use of a legal product isn’t the seminal question in this debate. We know that alcohol causes even more significant harms than marijuana, and that stuff flows like water in this town. We know that cigarette use causes cancer and other health problems, yet casino floors are smoker friendly even though the do-gooders have managed to ban smoking almost everywhere else in the state. Nevada is literally built on the exploitation of vice and drunkenness.

No, the seminal question — the question voters must answer when they decide Question 2 in November — is this: In a free society, should an adult be able to use a substance, even one that’s potentially harmful and intoxicating, if he or she chooses to do so?

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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