Nevada Republicans may find themselves in a fog on the medical marijuana issue. The state’s first medical marijuana law was signed in 2001, but bringing that approval to fruition has taken more than a decade. Dispensaries and grow houses, divvied up among Nevada’s handful of power players and their friends, are in the final stages of preparation.
And even notable Republican advisor and friend-of-the Bush family Sig Rogich once had a piece of the action.
Now, U.S. Senator Dean Heller has added his name to the pro-pot side of the Nevada GOP by signing on as a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which would ensure states the right to determine their own medical marijuana policies and laws. Other supporters include libertarian (and likely Republican presidential candidate) Senator Rand Paul and liberal Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Nevada Republicans, traditionally about as cool as a crewcut, are finally getting with the times.
“The time has come for the federal government to stop impeding the doctor-patient relationship in states that have decided their own medical marijuana policies,” Heller said. “This bipartisan legislation puts Americans who are suffering first by allowing Nevada’s medical marijuana patients, providers, and businesses that are in compliance with state law, to no longer be in violation of federal law and vulnerable to federal prosecution.”
Nevada State Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom, a Democrat from Las Vegas, is the key political player behind the medical marijuana movement and the push onward toward full legalization.
“Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is publicly on record as supporting medical marijuana,” Segerblom said. “I’m pleasantly surprised about Sen. Heller. He obviously knows that Nevada Republicans have a strong libertarian streak in them which supports marijuana, and there is strong support in the Mormon community, too.”
A new federal law would come as a big relief to several family members of Nevada casino licensees. This is following an announcement by Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett that privileged gaming status could be jeopardized because of marijuana’s illegal federal status. That’s the irony in Nevada, where rising-star Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is on the record opposing recreational use of marijuana, but in 2013 signed medical pot dispensary legislation into law.
The federal legislation would allow Veterans Administration physicians to prescribe medical marijuana for treatment. Nevada is home to more than 300,000 veterans.
Unspoken in Heller’s enthusiastic embrace of the CARERS Act legislation is the public opposition taken on the medical pot issue by Nevada’s biggest wealthiest casino titan, Sheldon Adelson. The national Republican Party mega-donor last year pumped a reported $5.5 million into the successful Drug Free Florida campaign against medicinal marijuana legalization. With a personal net worth of $36.4 billion in 2014, according to Forbes, the Las Vegas Sands chairman has emerged as the GOP’s biggest political oligarch in recent years, pouring more than $100 million into campaigns up and down the ticket.
Presidential hopefuls and congressional bosses alike court Adelson assiduously, buzzing his Strip resorts like worker bees as they seek his good graces and fat campaign checkbook. In Nevada, no Republican who values his future would dare cross Sheldon the Sugar Daddy.
Drug Free Florida made headlines when it named former Ronald Reagan drug Czar Carlton Turner as its chairman. While best known for helping to create Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, Turner also said marijuana use leads to homosexuality and, potentially, to AIDS.
Polls showed as much as 70 percent of voting Floridians favored legalizing for medicinal use. A University of Florida poll found that 67 percent of the state’s residents endorsed its use for medical reasons.
But what did they know?
Adelson’s $5.5 million—approximately 85 percent of the money raised by the opposition—bought a lot of political fear-mongering. In November, Amendment 2, the right to medical marijuana in Florida, failed to garner the 60 percent needed for constitutional change. It was one of the free-spending Adelson’s few victories in that election (although these days he’s said to have been celebrating his role in helping to re-elect Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)
Attempts to get Adelson’s fresh perspective on the medical marijuana issue were unsuccessful. But it’s been widely reported in Florida that Adelson’s interest in legalizing casino gambling might have been the prime motivator behind his public battle against the evils of legitimizing medical marijuana.
At the time, the monied meddling in the marijuana measure infuriated some observers, including Tallahassee Democrat columnist Paula Dockery, who wondered aloud, “What? You’re not familiar with Sheldon? Maybe that’s because he lives thousands of miles away in Las Vegas. But rest assured legislators and the governor know him. He and his lobbyists have been courting those in power to get expanded casino gambling here in Florida. Odd that someone perfectly fine with drinking and gambling could be so offended by legalized medical marijuana to help those with debilitating illness.”
Yes, isn’t it?
As you might imagine, the Nevada Democrat Segerblom remains suspicious of Adelson’s motives.
“I’m waiting for him to show his hand,” the longtime legislator said. “Maybe Florida was an outlier, but to the extend he openly opposes marijuana in Nevada he will become the issue—and Sheldon is someone everyone loves to hate. The truth is the public is so far ahead of the politicians when it comes to marijuana it’s scary.”
Adelson, whose wife Dr. Miriam Adelson is an addiction specialist, was reported opposed to legalizing medical marijuana because he believed it to be a gateway drug.
While Nevada Republicans have warmed up to medicinal marijuana’s legalization, will ultimate party boss Adelson’s anti-prescription pot politics one day open the gateway that leads to legalized casinos in Florida?
John L. Smith is a columnist with the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the author, most recently, of “Even a Street Dog: Las Vegas Stories.”