Pubdate: Thu, 05 Jun 2014
Source: Reno News & Review (NV)
Copyright: 2014, Chico Community Publishing, Inc.
Author: Dennis Myers
Bookmark: (Ballot Initiatives)


When Voters Lay Down the Law, Some Officials Balk

It was midday at Casale's Halfway Club on East Fourth Street. Though
lunch is not always a big thing here, today there was a group of 10
people around a single table. Tom Case had bid in a silent auction on
lunch for 10 with the mayors of Reno and Sparks at Casale's. He won,
and this was the gathering.

It was a fairly affluent group gathered around the table, so it was
perhaps surprising that one of the first questions was about medical
marijuana, directed at Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, who had recently
endorsed its health care use. Seated under a poster for Birra Peroni
lager, Cashell explained again the evolution of his thinking on the
matter, which involves his hearing neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta explain
the issue on CNN.

Medical marijuana, approved by voters in Nevada 13 years ago, was
accepted reluctantly by state legislators, who approved measures
requiring patients to produce their own medicine. Not until last year
did they provide for dispensaries, and they handed administration of
the dispensaries over to local governments-which, in turn, was
accepted reluctantly by many city and county officials. In a couple of
jurisdictions, dispensaries have been outlawed instead of licensed.

While not as dilatory as some local governments, Reno took its time
moving on cannabis medication by using "stay ordinances" that delayed
the issue. It was one of several local governments that waited on the
state to draft regulation and did not begin preparations until then.
Washoe and Clark counties, by contrast, were moving much faster.

In Lyon County, Sheriff Allen Veil opposed dispensaries. "Where
there's marijuana, organized crime has a finger in it, if it's not
controlled by them," Veil said. "The potential is great for abuse and
money laundering and there's absolutely no reason Lyon County should
want to be a part of that." Those issues, however, involve policy
judgments, and the voters had set the policy. Sheriffs are not
policymakers-it's their job to carry out the policies made by
legislators or voters, and in this case the voters were pretty clear
what they wanted.

Cashell and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini are both local politicians, and
after their lunch broke up they lingered. If voter approval doesn't
give politicians cover, what does?

"It was something voted on by the people and so on and so forth,"
Martini said. "It shouldn't need political cover, really. You know,
they [voters] want to do it. It's legalized now. We're going to
control it. I don't see a big problem with it. I'm not a proponent of
recreational, but medical marijuana, I think, can help people that
have certain diseases, and I think it's the right thing to do."

Cashell said, "It's got to be controlled and run right and everything
else, but the voters voted for it. You know, I've noticed a town in
Colorado refused to do it. I heard its sheriff talk on TV the other
night. Citizens over there really upset with the old boy, so I think
they'll probably do it."

Those are safe answers, but not all local officials around Nevada have
the same attitude. Should officials regard passage of an initiative
petition as instructions from the voters?

Martini: "I would think it is, yes. I think an initiative petition,
especially the way it passed-it passed pretty good, it wasn't a close
vote, I don't believe. It passed with a pretty good percentage-that's
a mandate from the people that they want to do it. It's something
that we should look at and do."

Cashell: "It's proven that alcohol and stuff like that causes many
problems, and I think we can regulate medical marijuana also."

Brains or robotics?

For political scientist Fred Lokken, initiative petitions raise more
complicated questions. Laws enacted by the legislature ideally go
through scrutiny and processing that seeks problems and anticipates
difficulties. It doesn't always work out that way, but in many cases
it does (See feature story, page 13). Initiative petitions, on the
other hand, present the public with an up-or-down vote on a measure
drafted by a special interest group and its language is locked in. In
addition, there are limits on the ability of the Nevada Legislature to
change laws approved by the public.

"Public policy initiatives that become law through voter approval do
not reflect the vetting that takes place in the legislative process,"
Lokken said. "The legislators make mistakes and they spend a nice long
time on legislation."

So what chance is there that initiatives will be flawless? In some
cases, legislators immerse themselves in subjects, learning a good
deal about the topics of legislation. That's not a process that voters
go through.

"Increasingly, initiatives begin outside the state," Lokken said.
"They are foisted on the voters of Nevada." Initiative petitions have
become an industry, one that involves big money. It's a long way from
the Progressive Era intent of a tool that would let ordinary voters
overcome money and power. But more than that, initiatives are rarely
prepared with the care given to measures passed by legislatures, where
both supporters and opponents scrutinize measures and have their say.

And local officials now trying to implement the marijuana law also
lack familiarity with the issues, which raises the question of whether
they should try to block it by indirection. That was indicated by one
exchange after the two mayors' luncheon. When it was pointed out that
the discussion took place under the beer poster, and that the number
of deaths known to be caused by marijuana consumption-zero-is
outnumbered by those caused by alcohol consumption-about 88,000 deaths
annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control-both mayors
indicated surprise.

"Are you sure that there's never been something that's proven that was
marijuana-related deaths?" Martini asked. "Then that's even something
that says more towards something we need to do, then, if there's never
been a death that was caused by marijuana. I didn't realize that."

"I didn't either," Cashell said.

"That's very new to me," Martini added.

Should local officials in some areas be substituting their own policy
judgment for that of the voters?

"That's pretty hallowed ground," Lokken said of public votes. But what
if there actually is a flaw in the law approved by the public after it
was drafted by one or a few people? A lot of initiatives contain what
Lokken called "muddy language" whose meaning is up for grabs. In
Nevada, some initiatives can't be touched for three years after they
are approved by voters. Even then, there is some reluctance by
legislators to change it, though they overcame their reluctance when
casino lobbyists last year pressured them to water down an
anti-smoking law passed by voters.

But if there is a real problem with a law-and political pressure is
not the issue-then what should legislators do? Lokken said voters
should ask themselves a question.

"What kind of legislators do you want? Do you want them to have a
brain and an opinion or do you want them to be a robot and take orders?"
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt