updated 10/4/2006 9:33:01 AM ET 2006-10-04T13:33:01

A coalition of religious leaders made a moral case Tuesday for legalizing the sale and possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for adults in Nevada while stiffening penalties for sales to youths and driving under the influence.

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At least 33 members of the clergy have endorsed ballot Question 7 on the November election ballot, which if approved would make Nevada the first state in the nation to allow people 21 and older to legally possess small amounts of marijuana and purchase it at government regulated and state-taxed pot shops.

The clergy argued the move would cut down on minors' access to marijuana, reduce gang-related violence and generate money for the state to help finance treatment programs instead of making drug dealers rich.

'Drug dealers don't card'
"On it's face, our current marijuana laws appear to be moral, but it is a cosmetic morality," said the Rev. Paul Hansen, senior pastor at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Las Vegas.

"Our current laws are causing virtually unfettered access to marijuana. Marijuana is far easier to access than alcohol because drug dealers don't card," he said.

Hansen was among four religious leaders who appeared with representatives of the Committee to Regulate & Control Marijuana at a news conference holding signs that read "Yes on 7. Tax and Regulate Marijuana."

Nevada is among 12 states that have decriminalized possession but still issue fines. Under Nevada law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana has been a misdemeanor offense punishable by a $600 fine since October 2001.

"Some of us Protestants believe that one of the functions of government is to curb sinful behavior," said the Rev. Ruth Hanusa, chaplain at Campus Christian Association at University of Nevada, Reno.

"But our marijuana laws are not curbing marijuana use and they are causing more harm than good by filling the pockets of dangerous criminals and ensuring that children have the easiest access of anyone," she said.

Hansen said he recently asked his 16-year-old daughter if she could find marijuana if she wanted to and before she could answer, his 18-year-old son burst out laughing.

"He said, `What a stupid question dad,'" Hansen said.

Opposition efforts
The Nevada AFL-CIO, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce are among groups opposed to the measure.

"Proposing to legalize another intoxicating drug is not the best thing for Nevada. The message it sends to youth is that smoking pot is just part of growing up," said Todd Raybuck, who operates the Web site http://www.nevadasaysno.com for the Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable that opposes the measure.

"There are two sides to every story but I believe if the clergymen that spoke in favor of Question 7 had been given the entire picture, many of them if not all would have not come down on it the way they have," he said. "I'm sure there are many clergymen in the state of Nevada who haven't spoken out yet against it but I'm sure they will."

Hypocrisy in society
The Rev. David Scheuneman, a Unitarian Universalist community minister in Las Vegas, said his church approved a resolution in 2002 advocating alternatives to current marijuana laws.

"One of the roles of religion is to point out hypocrisy in society. By any means, marijuana is less dangerous to individuals and society than alcohol," Scheuneman said.

"Ads for alcohol are plentiful. You are allowed to buy unlimited amounts, and in Las Vegas we give it away for free to gamblers in casinos and allow people to drink it on the streets," he said.

Sister Toni Woodson, a Roman Catholic nun and former teacher at Las Vegas' Bishop Gorman High School, said she's worried about the Mexican drug cartels that are growing marijuana on national forest land in nearby California and protecting their turf with dangerous weapons.

"Marijuana doesn't cause this disregard for human life. Our marijuana laws do," Woodson said.

"Jesus said you could judge a tree by its fruit. If our marijuana laws are a tree, I'm afraid the fruit is failing," she said.

Support for change
Neal Levine, campaign manager for the committee pushing the initiative, said the backing of the religious community - "people who obviously have deep moral beliefs" - shows the breadth of the support for the change.

"I think our campaign is gaining traction and moving forward and I think we're going to pass this in November," he said.

Recent polls have the measure trailing, 51 percent to 42 percent.

Nevada voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing marijuana use for medical purposes in 1998 and 2000, but four years ago, state voters overwhelmingly rejected a petition that would have legalized up to 3 ounces of marijuana. A similar petition failed to qualify for the 2004 ballot.

The newest version imposes a $45 per ounce excise tax, which would be used to defray administrative costs. Remaining tax dollars would go to the state general fund, with 50 percent earmarked for alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse programs.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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