Brothels, blackjack, and ... bongs? Oh my.

This famously live-and-let-live state, where legal prostitution has given rise to $7 million brothel-resorts and where legal gambling includes video poker machines in grocery stores, may now be poised to break another vice barrier.

A first-in-the-nation initiative appearing on Nevada's ballot in November asks the public to legalize marijuana. Not just for medicinal purposes. For recreational use, too. If the initiative is approved, it would then have to pass again in 2004 to become a constitutional amendment.

It's no accident that the Silver State has become the national focus of this debate. The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project scoured the political landscape last year for a test state and settled on Nevada because of its well-known libertarian bent, a small population that makes the campaign less expensive, and an electorate who already overwhelmingly approved the medical use of marijuana in two ballot questions.

Indeed, there's a real possibility that Nevadans could approve the measure, despite federal drug laws that bar any possession whatsoever. The petition effort that placed the initiative on the ballot garnered more than 109,000 signatures – nearly double the required number. And two recent local newspaper polls show the public evenly split.

"It's a tight race, and we haven't even started yet," says Vincent Frey, deputy campaign manager for Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, the group pushing the initiative. "We plan to identify 25,000 households that we think can swing this our way."

Specifically, the initiative would decriminalize possession of less than three ounces of cannabis for anyone over 21. It would also require state legislators to devise a regulatory system for its manufacture and sale.

The largest newspaper in the state, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, endorsed the measure as a means to "bring compassion and common sense to drug laws." Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, won't take sides, saying through his spokesman that he's "anxious to see how the electorate votes."

Pro-pot's campaign machine

To further its cause, the Marijuana Policy Project spent $375,000 on the petition drive. Another $150,000 has already been raised. More is promised as the campaign gears up to buy TV advertising, open offices in both Las Vegas and Reno, and hire more than 50 employees.

These pro-pot forces argue that law-enforcement officers have better things to do in this age of terrorism than to bust marijuana users for what some see as a harmless hobby. "We know some people develop an unhealthy relationship with marijuana, but the same can be said about alcohol or tobacco," says Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is funding and directing the Nevada effort. "That doesn't mean all adults who use marijuana should be arrested."

Even federal officials admit that the measure could be effective, inasmuch as the issue is primarily on the state and local level anyway. The feds handle only the biggest marijuana busts, so if state or local agents didn't press these charges in Nevada, they'd largely go unprosecuted, says Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Nevada's police apparently provided some surprising backup for such arguments last week. The umbrella organization for nine law-enforcement unions announced its endorsement on grounds that "a simple marijuana arrest takes [police] off the street for several hours and sometimes over half of [a] shift."

That endorsement was rescinded two days later amid embarrassing headlines calling Nevada's cops pro-pot. Some union chiefs insisted either they thought they were supporting the medical use of marijuana or they didn't know they were discussing an official endorsement of a real ballot question.

The flap – which ended in the resignation of the umbrella organization's president – jarred the dormant opposition into action. The day after the endorsement, a group of about 25 law-enforcement officials, drug-treatment advocates, and social conservatives met to plan their strategy.

Particularly appalled is Deputy District Attorney Gary Booker, who is leading the as yet-unnamed counter group and heads the vehicular crimes unit in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. The prosecutor says the proposal as it is worded could invalidate current laws governing driving under the influence of marijuana, raise auto insurance rates for everyone, and turn Nevada into a "stoner haven."

"All Nevada is going to do is look stupid and foolish," says Mr. Booker, who borrowed three ounces of cannabis from the police-evidence room to show the media that it's enough for 250 joints. "It would be like enacting a constitutional amendment that legalizes slavery. It's illegal and it will still be illegal."

Leave us alone

Still, such attitudes run counter to Nevada's independent streak. "Nevadans generally have an attitude that, wherever possible, leave the people alone to make their own choices," says Craig Walton, a professor of ethics and policy studies at University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "This measure is probably a natural for a state with a frontier mentality that says, 'Law and order is useful, but let's not go too far.' "

Moreover, many in this state are bitter with the federal government over its decision to go ahead with a national nuclear-waste dump about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas. So this move could be cast for voters as a form of rebellion, says Mr. Frey of Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement.

And rather than being offended by the possibility of becoming the nation's Doobie Capital, some Sin City businesses are positively high on the prospect. "There are unlimited tourism possibilities," travel agent Terry Wilsey gushes. "Las Vegas could become the American Amsterdam."

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