By Sasha Abramsky
Voters have been losing their taste for the war on drugs lately; in the past few years, states from Arizona and Alaska to California and Hawaii have moved toward making marijuana, in particular, a low priority for law enforcement, with first-offense possession cases often dismissed with small-time fines and medical-marijuana measures on the books in several states. But the initiative voters in Nevada will be considering this fall goes much further: The “tax and regulate” measure, whose supporters got it on the ballot by collecting 86,000 signatures, would allow anyone over 21 to possess up to one ounce for personal use, would set up a system of pot shops (at a specified distance from schools), and would tax marijuana in a manner comparable to alcohol.
What’s intriguing about the measure is not just that it could turn Reno and Vegas into American Amsterdams, but that its most enthusiastic champions are folks like Chuck Muth. A burly, crew-cut, 47-year-old meat-and-potatoes man—during dinner at the Glen Eagles restaurant, to which he has driven in a beat-up, 15-year-old station wagon, he opts out of the salad and never touches the vegetables that come with the steak—Muth runs a conservative networking organization named Citizen Outreach. Inspired by a course designed in Newt Gingrich’s office that he took in Washington, D.C., in 1996, he also leads message-honing seminars that have trained many successful Republican politicians and public figures including the state’s current first lady, Dema Guinn; his electronic newsletter claims 15,000 daily readers nationwide.
Nevada went for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but not by much. It is a land of desert and mountains, conservative in an old-fashioned, western sense. And that, says Muth, who grew up in Baltimore and was arrested for pot possession in a city park late one night when he was 19 years old, makes it the perfect state to say no to the war on drugs. “Live and let live,” says Muth. “If I’m not bothering anyone else, don’t bother me.” The politician he most idealizes is Barry Goldwater, another Republican who took on his party’s sacred cows.
What if Nevada were to pass the measure and the feds swept in? “Bring it on,” Muth exclaims, so excited his large fist literally thumps the table. “This country has needed a big fight over federalism for a long time. I’d love to see it here. If the feds came in, you’d start to see a backlash against the drug war and the federal government. The war on drugs is a total failure. It’s time to bring the troops home.”
It’s a hallmark of how much has changed from a decade ago, when Democrats and Republicans were clamoring for ever more tough-on-drugs measures, that the war on drugs will likely be undone (if it ever is) in the red states, by conservatives like Muth, his friend Grover Norquist (the conservative guru at Americans for Tax Reform), writer William F. Buckley, Jr., economist Milton Friedman, and former Secretary of State George Shultz, all of whom have a sort of Nixon-going-to-China advantage in turning soft on pot. Across the nation, says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, about a quarter of Republicans support marijuana legalization, and the numbers are creeping up. “The next generation of Republicans is much more libertarian than social conservative,” says Piper. “At its core, conservatism is supposed to be about free markets, the rule of law, and smaller government—and you can’t have any of those when you have a massive war on drugs.” At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Drug Policy Alliance director Ethan Nadelmann got enthusiastic applause when he called on Republicans to move away from the lock-’em-up approach as a drug-prevention strategy.
For Nevada, this is not the first attempt to pass a legalization measure. Four years ago, advocates got an initiative on the ballot that would have permitted possession of up to three ounces of marijuana; the initiative gained the support of the Nevada Conference of Police and Sheriffs. “We’re saying we should be spending our time protecting and serving the public,” asserted the organization’s then-president, Andy Anderson, before pressure from members forced the conference’s leadership to abandon its support. On Election Day, the initiative polled 39 percent.
This time around, despite early polls showing 56 percent of voters opposing the measure, supporters are hoping that they’ll do better come Election Day. Across the state, says Neal Levine, who leads the campaign for the measure, more and more conservatives are getting interested in reform for pragmatic as well as philosophical reasons; attempting to stamp out marijuana usage through incarceration, argues Levine, “is the biggest, costliest policy of failure this side of Iraq.” The D.C.-based Sentencing Project estimates that it costs America more than $4 billion annually to arrest, prosecute, and lock up marijuana offenders.
Levine, who lives in Las Vegas, maintains ties to many activists inside the Republican Party. The campaign’s press officer is a Log Cabin Republican. The measure’s most fervent backers, besides Muth, include Earlene Forsythe, a former military nurse who now specializes in caring for cancer patients. Forsythe, 56, chaired the state GOP during the 2004 presidential election season and has framed photos of herself with Laura and George Bush on her office walls. But she’s lost patience with her party over the issue of medical marijuana. “If my patient wants to go out and smoke a joint,” she shrugs, “I say, ‘Why not?’”
Besides, argues Muth, what better state than Nevada to launch a drug-reform movement? “It’s got to start somewhere,” he says. “The first domino has to fall.”