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From Evil Weed to Legal Herb: Nevadans’ Views on Pot Have Evolved

By Frank X. Mullen

Nevada is undergoing a 21st century version of “Reefer Madness,” but this time the excitement about marijuana use is in support of expanded legalization, not the condemnation of the drug.

“Reefer Madness” was 1936 American propaganda film that attempted to convince viewers that the “loathsome weed” would turn innocent teens into crazed delinquents. It warned the youngsters would then mindlessly commit random violence, rape and murder. Cannabis smokers, according to the film, were just a toke away from hallucinations and chronic mental illness.

These days, enthusiasm for the weed is frequently about loosening federal laws to accommodate states that have already legalized medical and recreational pot and ultimately ending federal prohibition. Other states are considering legalization as profits from legal marijuana sales surpass all estimates.

The times, they are a-changing, but change is slow at the federal level.

The Nevada Congressional delegation -- representing a state where pot is now legal both medically and recreationally -- supports measures that would allow banks to service cannabis businesses. Federal law won’t allow banks or anyone else to handle the proceeds from cannabis sales (although the feds levy taxes on those businesses). Most delegation members also back ending federal prohibition completely or at least changing the regulations that rate marijuana as dangerous as heroin and other drugs with no approved medical uses.

Voters in the Silver State approved medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational use in 2016 by a 54 to 46 percent margin. Prior to that vote, Rep. Mark Amodei and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto opposed legalization, but have since supported helping the industry. Amodei backs bills that would allow banks to serve what is now a cash-only operation. “It’s not my cup of tea, but that train has left the station,” Amodei told the Nevada Independent in March. He says he wants the industry to be handled like alcohol, tobacco and gaming, which are subject to more government oversight and taxation than other businesses.

Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general, opposed the ballot question in 2016, but now supports cannabis banking bills and wants the federal government to allow states to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana. In April Cortez Masto joined a bipartisan group of 21 other senators, including Sen. Jacky Rosen, to introduce a bill that would provide access to banking services for legal cannabis businesses. That measure is the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.

“Recreational marijuana use is now legal in Nevada and nine other states across the country, and medical marijuana is legal in 33 states. It’s time we created an infrastructure that would allow the marijuana industry in these states to operate legally and provide legitimate cannabis-related businesses with access to the banking system,” Cortez Masto says.

Rep. Susie Lee also supports the banking bill and states’ rights to legalize the drug. Rosen, Rep. Steven Hosford, and Rep. Dina Titus back the banking bill, support ending federal prohibition and want to allow Veterans Administration doctors to suggest cannabis to patients who might benefit from the drug.

Titus was the first among the Nevada delegation to champion cannabis policy reform. In 2016, she supported a “strong foundation” for the medical marijuana industry and called on the VA to change its policies “so veterans and their doctors can talk about medical marijuana as a potential treatment.” In addition, Titus requested the federal government remove barriers for federal marijuana research. In January, she signed on to the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, a bill directing the Department of Justice to remove marijuana in any form from all schedules of controlled substances.

“ Nevada has shown that regulating marijuana like alcohol works. It is time the nation follows our state’s lead by removing cannabis from all schedules of the Controlled Substances Act and setting up a framework to guide businesses and consumers,” Titus says in a statement on her website. “The majority of Americans are sick of the federal government stoking fear and ignoring the dangers of the black market.”

Fred Lokken, chair of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College , says the state’s evolution on cannabis legalization is the latest chapter in Nevada ’s tradition of legalizing things that aren’t generally accepted in many states. “We broke trail on divorces and legalized gaming in the 1930s,” he says. “We shook the tree and in time the rest of the world caught up.” He notes that states like Nevada , Washington and Colorado haven’t seen the dire consequences predicted by opponents of cannabis legalization.

Then there’s the money. Nevada raked in about $70 million in taxes in the first year recreational marijuana was legal (from $529 million in taxable sales). The current fiscal year will top those figures, with $72 million in taxes collected on $464 in sales with three more months receipts left to be tallied. Colorado ’s legal pot sales have topped $6.5 billion since its recreational marijuana shops opened in 2014 and has collected more than $1 billion in taxes.

“As states see what (money) is being made in the states that have legalized pot, just like gaming, we’ll find marijuana all over the place,” Lokken says. He says he doesn’t expect federal policy on marijuana to soften during the current administration, but if the Democrats win in 2020 he anticipates changes at the federal level.

In Nevada , Amodei and Cortez Masto adjusted their views because “good politicians reflect their electorate,” Lokken says. That evolution happens when both voters and lawmakers “reject misinformation by using good rational thinking and keeping track of emerging information that allows their views to change.”