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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The head of a civil rights group in northern Nevada said Friday the incoming state Legislature should legalize marijuana for recreational use instead of leaving the question to voters.
Jeffrey Blanck, president of the Reno and Sparks chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, cast legalization as a race issue.
He pointed to studies, including a June 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, that say blacks are far more likely than whites to face arrest and prosecution for marijuana possession.
"I want the Legislature to do it because we elected them to be leaders," Blanck said.
Blanck wants lawmakers to support a petition submitted by a group called the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which said it submitted nearly 200,000 signatures — almost twice as many as needed to qualify for the ballot. Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller has verified the signatures and approved the measure for the 2016 ballot.
If approved by voters, the proposed law would allow Nevada to join Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia in allowing recreational pot use.
It would make private possession of up to an ounce of marijuana legal for people over age 21. Sellers, growers and distributors would be licensed and regulated, and would pay a 15 percent wholesale tax on sales with the revenue dedicated to schools.
The Nevada Legislature meets every two years for four months. It opens Feb. 2. If it refuses to consider the marijuana question, it will automatically appear on the November 2016 ballot.
"What harm is there to our society if a person is smoking marijuana in their home?" Blanck asked in a Sept. 4 letter he said was sent on NAACP letterhead to every state lawmaker. It pointed to the ACLU report, titled "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," which studied 2001 to 2010 data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Nevada ranked sixth-highest in the number of black people arrested for marijuana possession, with the 11th largest racial disparity in marijuana possession rates by race.
"The bottom line from the NAACP perspective is that black people are 4 1/2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than if you are white," Blanck said Friday.
He told the lawmakers in his letter that Nevada spent $41.6 million in 2010 enforcing marijuana possession laws that could have been better used for education or health services.
Joe Brezny, a former Nevada Republican party official who now heads the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association and speaks for the initiative, has emphasized the economic benefit of taxing and regulating marijuana while reducing police costs.
He has teamed in the campaign with Democratic state Sen. Tick Segerblom of Las Vegas, who is also telling Republican colleagues that legalizing pot would avoid having an initiative on the November 2016 ballot that could attract Democrats to the polls.
Segerblom says the fact the GOP has control of both legislative houses for the first time since 1985 makes it less likely state lawmakers will legalize recreational pot use.