Nevada measures tougher on DUIs, easier on pot possession
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) – If Nevada is a seeming paradox, with its round-the-clock gambling and drinking but harsh criminal laws, its lawmakers are no different – proposing tougher drunken driving laws but softer marijuana statutes.
”It reflects the uniqueness of Nevada. It almost seems like a contradiction,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. ”It shows our Libertarian bent – a ‘you do your thing as long as you aren’t hurting me’ attitude.”
This session, Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani’s AB453 would authorize medical use of marijuana and decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot – while Assemblyman Mark Manendo’s AB166 would lower the permitted blood-alcohol limit for drivers from 0.10 to 0.08.
”It’s unusual we’d have the harshest law on marijuana possession on the books – it conflicts with our Libertarian way. But it doesn’t conflict with our tradition of being conservative and strict on crime,” Leslie said. ”Alcohol kills far more than marijuana.”
Manendo wants to reduce the deaths caused by drunken driving. He says if the blood-alcohol limit in drivers is lowered to 0.08 nationally, each year up to 600 DUI-related fatalities would be prevented around the country.
”This is a lifesaving measure,” Manendo said, adding that the bill faced strong casino industry opposition in the past but has a good chance this year because Congress mandated the lower blood-alcohol level.
Nineteen states already have imposed the 0.08 level, and if Nevada doesn’t do the same by 2003 it will lose millions of dollars in federal highway funds.
In 2000, there were 255 fatal crashes resulting in 309 deaths reported across the state, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety. About a third of the deaths were alcohol-related.
Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, said he resents the federal government’s intrusive manner, adding, ”We need to be passing laws on the basis of whether the law is good.”
But Assembly Judiciary Chairman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, hopes the Legislature acts on the lower DUI standard now ”before it’s pushed in our face. We have an opportunity to be more thoughtful.”
Harvey Whittemore, representing the Nevada Beer Wholesalers’ Association, said that states with lower DUI levels don’t necessarily have fewer fatal drunken-driving accidents, and that other factors such as educating people about drunken driving and building safe roads also reduce the number of fatalities.
”We’re concerned about the continued attempt by many to turn this into a Prohibition,” he adds.
But others, including Assemblywoman Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, don’t think the bill is tough enough.
”If we want to tell people not to drink and drive, we need to have a limit of 0.0,” she said. ”We’re sending the wrong message – that a little bit of alcohol is OK to have and drive. The message really is: don’t drink and drive.”
While the penalties for drunken driving might get stricter, getting caught with small amounts of marijuana could result in softer sentences than the current felony penalties that can be imposed.
Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, says her strategy to get the possession penalty eased was to link it with the medical marijuana plan mandated by the state’s voters.
The ballot plan, approved by nearly two of every three voters, allows use of marijuana by cancer, AIDS, glaucoma victims and others with painful and potentially terminal illnesses.
”We don’t want to nail people who are using it for medical purposes,” Giunchigliani said.
She adds that while those who don’t have a medical excuse for possessing marijuana will have a price to pay, it won’t be high.
Giunchigliani wants a misdemeanor fine for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana. A second offense would result in a higher fine and assignment to a treatment or rehabilitation program. Third-time offenders would be charged with a gross misdemeanor and have to pay an even steeper fine.
As the law stands now, she says, ”It ends up being a bunch of paperwork for police. They need to focus their energies on violent criminals, and cocaine and crack addicts.”
”Maybe it’s a reflection that our drug policy has failed.”
Carpenter tends to vote conservatively, but favors decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot.
”The only way to make inroads on the drug problem is through treatment and to some, that is punishment. They need to have the fear of the devil put into them.”
Veteran Assemblyman Joe Dini, D-Yerington, also backs decriminalization, saying he’s concerned about the mark a felony leaves on the record of a young person caught with marijuana.
”That’s a bad rap. The rest of their life they have that on their record. Maybe the law is too strict, and we’re not winning the war.”
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