Gambling, prostitution, and now pot? Organizers of a Nevada ballot measure hope voters in a state where almost everything goes will go one better and legalize marijuana.
If it passes Nov. 7, Nevada will be the first state to allow adults to possess up to an ounce of pot that they could buy at government-regulated marijuana shops.
The Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana, which has pushed medical marijuana and decriminalization laws around the country, thinks Nevada - with its embrace of certain vices and its streak of Western independence - is a perfect venue.
Hypocrisy of banning pot
In an editorial last spring, the rural Lahontan Valley News argued that gambling, Nevada's most powerful industry, caters to "visceral pleasures," and that it would hypocritical to oppose the legalization of marijuana on moral grounds.
Proponents of the measure also argue that the legal system wastes time and money on low-level marijuana offenses, and that taxing and regulating pot would put drug dealers out of business while freeing law enforcement to focus on violent crime and more dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine.
"Put it into a tightly controlled and regulated environment. We think that makes a lot of sense," Neal Levine, executive director of the committee.
Opponents, including law enforcement, the nation's drug czar, and civic and business groups, argue the measure would encourage the use of other drugs, and they question whether it will even prove to be a good source of tax revenue.
"The fact is, growing, distributing and warehousing marijuana will still be a federal offense," said Todd Raybuck, a Las Vegas police officer and spokesman for the Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable, which opposes the measure.
Question 7 allows people 21 and older to possess an ounce of marijuana in their homes - the same amount allowed under Nevada's medical marijuana law. Currently, possession of an ounce or less is a misdemeanor punishable by a $600 fine.
Government marijuana stores
Twelve states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana - that is, possession is punishable by a ticket and a fine - and 11 allow its use for medical purposes. Possession of up to an ounce at home is legal in Alaska under a court ruling there, but the case is under appeal.
Colorado residents will vote next month on whether to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by those 21 and older, similar to an ordinance Denver voters approved last year.
But the Nevada measure goes further. It directs Nevada's Department of Taxation to set up procedures to license and regulate marijuana growers, distributors and retailers. At the same time, it doubles penalties for selling or giving pot to minors and for vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Pot tax revenue
The legislation also imposes a $45-per-ounce excise tax, with some of the proceeds going toward the budget and alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse programs. An ounce of pot on the street costs upwards of $300, depending on the quality.
A 2002 study by researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas estimated taxing and regulating marijuana would generate $28.6 million in revenue.
The Justice Department in Washington did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled people who smoke marijuana for medical reasons can be prosecuted under federal drug laws, and Raybuck said it is doubtful federal agents would tolerate commercial pot ventures in Nevada.
Nevada marijuana history mixed
In 2002, Nevada voters overwhelmingly rejected a move to legalize up to three ounces of marijuana. The latest measure got onto the ballot after 86,000 people signed petitions.
A poll conducted in September for the Las Vegas Review-Journal found 51 percent of voters opposed Question 7, while 42 percent supported it and 7 percent were undecided.
The measure has found some surprising allies.
"Make no mistake, I don't think using marijuana is a wise choice for anyone," said the Rev. William C. Webb, a Baptist minister who joined dozens of other religious leaders in announcing their backing. But "if there has to be a market in marijuana, I'd rather it be regulated with sensible safeguards than run by violent gangs and dangerous drug dealers."