Marijuana, gay marriage, top Nevada ballot questions

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RENO -- People who argue Nevada is a live-and-let-live state can point to a marijuana question on the November ballot as proof. But another ballot proposal to ban same-sex marriages could prove them wrong.

Question 2, approved by 70 percent of voters in 2000 and up for a second, final vote Nov. 5, would amend the Nevada Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and woman.

The proposal, labeled by critics as anti-gay bigotry, contrasts sharply with Nevada's Question 9, to let adults possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana for personal use.

Question 9 is up for its first vote. If approved, it would appear again on the November 2004 ballot for a final vote. Then state legislators would have to craft rules for growing, taxing and distributing the drug through state-licensed stores.

Whether Question 9 could ever take effect is unclear since federal law bans marijuana possession, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states can't make exceptions for medical use.

But is a state that thrives on gambling and tolerates prostitution ready to embrace the most liberal marijuana laws in the country?

"I don't think Nevadans are willing to go that far yet," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Two years ago, Nevadans gave final approval to a constitutional amendment allowing ill people to use and obtain marijuana for medical purposes.

Last year, the state Legislature made possession of less than an ounce a misdemeanor. Before that, possession of even minute amounts could be punished as a felony,

The latest campaign was spearheaded by Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, an offshoot of the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

The Nevada group, headed by Billy Rogers, gathered nearly 75,000 signatures around the state to put the question on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Why target Nevada?

"Because we're a very individualistic state," Herzik surmised. "We're the leaders in vice. We give away drinks; we have legalized prostitution; gambling is the backbone of our economy. Why not marijuana?"

Rogers says the issue boils down to law enforcement priorities.

"This initiative will allow the police to spend more time going after murderers, rapists and other violent criminals," he said.

Opponents, many in law enforcement, call that argument a smoke screen. They maintain that legalizing pot would lead to more drug abuse among youth and undermine Nevada's DUI laws by requiring prosecutors to prove someone was driving "dangerously" while under the influence of marijuana.

The issue has drawn the attention of the Bush administration, prompting two visits to Nevada by federal drug czar John P. Walters and one by Drug Enforcement Agency Director Asa Hutchinson to lobby against it.

"This is a con and it's insulting to the voters of the state in which it is presented," Walters said during a recent trip to Reno.

Advocates of Question 9 think they have a shot at voter approval. But opponents of the gay marriage prohibition, Question 2, seem resigned to its passage even though they're making a last-ditch effort to defeat it.

"The only question is, does it do better or worse than last time," Herzik said in discussing the odds for approval of Question 2 on Nov. 5.

In terms of money, there's no contest.

"The reality is we're tremendously out-funded again," said Liz Moore of Equal Rights Nevada in Las Vegas. "American Politics 101 -- look who has the most money and they'll likely win."

Richard Ziser, chairman of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, said his group raised about $2 million during the two-year effort -- most coming in the last election season.

So far this year, opponents have raised about $40,000, Moore said.

Backers say the constitutional provision is needed to protect Nevada from having to honor civil unions of gay couples in other states.

Critics -- among them Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez and some clergy, call the ballot question bigoted and discriminatory against gays and lesbians.

"I think unfortunately Question 2 will pass," said Benitez, who during last month's Miss America's pageant performed an oratory of a statement by the father of Matthew Shepard, 21, a gay University of Wyoming freshman who was tied to a fence and beaten to death in 1998.

Benitez said the vote "will be a litmus test for Nevadans to see if we are a community of compassion and acceptance."

Nevada's Catholic bishops endorsed the measure with some reservations, but couched their opposition by adding they respect others who "follow their consciences" and believe differently.


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