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October 16, 2019

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Political Memo:

Once a taboo topic in state GOP, drug decriminalization has some talking

Voters might be wondering if Republicans are smoking something these days after two ranking Republicans recently supported exploring whether marijuana and other drugs should be decriminalized, if not legalized.

For years, supporters of legalizing pot have viewed Nevada as a potential stomping ground, hoping the libertarian streak that runs through Democrats and Republicans in this state would be kind to their efforts.

So far, however, they’ve failed at the ballot box.

And it’s never been a mantle that politicians have been fond of taking up. An effort, for example, to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada failed in the Legislature last year.

In the past, the issue has been marginalized as one only hippies, teenagers and rap stars cared about. Now, however, it appears to be taking root in what many might have considered a hostile environment — the Republican Party.

To wit: Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, floated the idea this month of decriminalizing some drug offenses to save money on incarceration.

Then, the Nevada Republican Party’s new chairman, Michael McDonald, told a GOP podcast host recently “there’s a good argument” for legalizing pot.

And last month, a contingent of Republican delegates at the Washoe County convention tried — and failed because time ran out to debate it — to insert a plank supportive of legalizing marijuana in the party’s platform.

The effort at the party level is a reflection of the in-roads GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s supporters have made in the party structure over the past four years. Beyond seeing their candidate elected, many Paul supporters are probably most passionate about seeing their beloved herb legalized.

Paul believes states, not the federal government, should regulate drug laws, and has spoken plainly on the fact he believes alcohol to be more destructive than pot. His position has earned him a legion of young followers.

Four years ago, after a contentious showdown with party leaders at the state convention, Paul supporters made the concerted decision to begin working within the party machine rather than trying to fight it from the outside. Since then, they’ve won seats on party central committees and influenced everything from rules governing the caucuses to the election of party chairmen.

Now it appears they’ve begun to influence policy positions, although their outcome on the legalizing marijuana platform will likely be as successful as their ability to throw the Republican nomination to Paul.

Although both Hickey and McDonald have spoken in favor of decriminalizing some drug offenses, they have individual reasons for doing so, unrelated to the impassioned pleas of the new rank and file marching on various Republican central committees.

In a brief interview last week, McDonald said he thinks medical marijuana should be legal and more accessible after experiencing his mother’s difficult death from cancer.

“When you see someone you love suffer like that, I think there’s an argument to be made,” he said. “I’m a police officer. I am as anti-drug as you can imagine. But marijuana medically can help someone in so much pain.”

Hickey said he’s not an advocate of making any drug more easily or widely available. Rather, he wants to know if Nevada can attack the drug problem in a more cost-efficient manner through treatment rather than incarceration.

“Certainly, some of the positions of Ron Paul and libertarian-leaning Republicans resonate with a fair number of Nevadans,” Hickey said. “But this is unrelated. I am not an advocate necessarily, and I’m certainly not for condoning the use or the abuse of drugs, which I find to be rather personally self-destructive.”

Indeed, the recent focus on legalizing marijuana has made some Republicans uncomfortable.

“I was surprised to hear the assemblyman mention it and McDonald mention it,” Washoe County GOP Chairman Dave Buell said. “Let’s face it, those aren’t huge issues this election cycle. Too many people are unemployed and have homes on the brink to care about marijuana.

“And I certainly don’t think the mainstream Republican Party is ready to go push that.”

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