Pubdate: May 10, 1999 at 13:29:55 PDT 
Source: Las Vegas Sun (NV)
Copyright: 1999 Las Vegas SUN, Inc.


CARSON CITY (AP) - Nevada is either the best or the worst state in the
country when it comes to laws governing the possession of small amounts of

The state has the toughest pot laws in the country. Possession of any amount
is a felony.

But only a handful of Nevada's prison inmates are locked up on marijuana
charges - an indication that few Nevadans use marijuana - or that hardly
anyone enforces those tough laws.

"Depending on your point of view, you're either at the top or the bottom,"
said Paul Armentano, communications director for the National Organization
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Only two states consider possession of small amounts of marijuana a felony
punishable by as much as four years in prison - Nevada and Arkansas. And
Nevada is tougher on first-time offenders than Arkansas, at least on the books.

Nevada's law makes the first-time offense for possessing any amount of
marijuana a felony punishable by between one and four years of jail and a
$5,000 fine.

Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, thinks the time has come to
change the books.

Her AB577 would decriminalize the first-time possession of less than an
ounce. The bill is pending in the Ways and Means Committee.

The penalty would be a fine of up to $500, which would go to anti-drug programs.

In Arkansas, possession of between an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana is a
crime punishable by four to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Less than
an ounce is punished by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Legislators have been reluctant to talk about decriminalization of pot laws
in recent years. Even the trend to permit marijuana for medical use was not
helping legislators to soften harsh drug laws, Armentano said.

Such discussions have been taboo, he said, and NORML was encouraged that in
Nevada, decriminalization has become part of a public policy discussion.

It is a discussion where most Nevada law enforcement groups are remaining

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the state's district attorneys
and the attorney general's office all have said nothing when the bill was
being discussed in committee.

The Nevada Narcotics Officers Association and the Nevada Division of
Investigations testified against the bill before the Senate Judiciary
Committee. They argued weaker laws encouraged drug use, particularly among
young people.

"Notice the absence of opposition here," Giunchigliani said. "It's risky for
anyone in law enforcement to be at the forefront of this, but I've received
calls from judges and DAs who say they support it. And there has been
positive reaction from the public. Statewide, there really has been no major

Giunchigliani said she couldn't estimate what the cost savings might be if
her bill passes.

"Since not that much bed space is taken up solely by marijuana prisoners, we
can't break out how much might be saved," she said. "It would prevent or
divert, however, which saves money down the road."

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