A conservative billionaire has succeeded in pressuring an influential Nevada newspaper to reverse its longtime support for legalizing marijuana — by buying it and then sending its editorial writers to visit a drug treatment facility.
“Legalizing weed would jeopardize the health of countless Nevadans, expose more people to drug abuse and addiction, put excessive stress on the state’s health-care facilities and do little to relieve the state’s bloated prison population,” reads an editorial in Wednesday’s edition of the the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The paper was purchased last December by Sheldon Adelson, operator of Las Vegas’s Sands casino and one of the richest people in the world, according to Forbes. A staunch opponent of not just legalizing marijuana but also of allowing its medical use, he donated the lion’s share of funds in opposition to a medical cannabis initiative that was narrowly defeated by Florida voters in 2014.
The new editorial, a stark reversal of the Review-Journal’s previous strong support for ending cannabis prohibition, comes as Nevada voters prepare to decide on a legalization measure in November. When advocates were collecting signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, the editorial board called it “an important step forward in fixing a failed policy” and telling Nevadans, “If you are presented with the petition, and you’re a registered voter, sign it.”
In another piece, the board predicted that the measure would pass. “As with gay marriage, public opinion has shifted on recreational marijuana,” they wrote. “Polls show a majority of Americans recognize the futility of prohibition and would rather see governments collect taxes on the sale of the drug.”
But when Adelson took over the paper, he and his wife Miriam pressured editorial board members to visit a drug treatment center and reconsider the publication’s support for legalization.
Until now, the editorial board has consistently opined in favor of marijuana law reform, as recently as December, when it criticized the U.S. Postal Service for threatening newspapers that print ads for cannabis businesses.
In November the paper editorialized that presidential candidates should endorse the removal of marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, calling such a move “an important — and long overdue — start to changing the costly trajectory of the failed war on drugs.”
Another piece concluded, “Marijuana is mainstream, and there’s no turning back.”
The Review-Journal endorsed an earlier measure to legalize marijuana that appeared on Nevada’s ballot in 2002, writing that it would give voters “an opportunity to bring sanity to the state’s overly burdensome drug enforcement policy” and “would end the needless harassment of individuals who peacefully and privately use marijuana — including seriously ill patients who should have some legal protection, not to mention peace of mind, because they’re covered by the medical marijuana program.”
And the board’s drug policy reform stances have gone far beyond marijuana. “This editorial page has long supported the decriminalizing, regulating and taxing the sale of currently illegal drugs,” reads one piece from last year. “This position is taken not only because of the supreme costs related to policing, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders — not to mention the tragic (and preventable) cost in human lives — but also due to inescapable fact that no amount of government pressure has ever reduced demand for illegal drugs in the United States. In fact, it has done the exact opposite.”
Marijuana policy reform advocates reacted sharply to the reversal.
“It’s pretty obvious that this is the position of an overzealous newspaper owner and not that of an objective editorial board,” Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project said in an email. “Most Nevadans are already wary of Adelson, and now they are probably even more so given how glaring the hypocrisy is in this case. This is a guy who has made a fortune pushing booze on casino-goers, but wants to keep a much less harmful product illegal. Hopefully the Review-Journal will keep Adelson’s opinion confined to the opinion section and not let it leak into its new coverage.”
Adelson is reportedly preparing to launch a Super PAC in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but hasn’t yet publicly announced to what extent he will fund anti-marijuana efforts this year, including against the legalization measure in Nevada and a renewed medical cannabis push in Florida.
But a leading group working to continue the criminalization of marijuana revealed that it is actively pitching Adelson to fund their campaigns to defeat legalization initiatives appearing on ballots in Nevada and as many as five other states this November.
The organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), announced last week that it has so far raised more than $300,000 to oppose legalization measures this year and is hiring field organizers in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
SAM’s choice to focus much of its anti-legalization efforts in Nevada this year as opposed to other states with legalization measures such as Arizona or Maine, for example, raised questions about from whom its new money was donated, with some speculating that the potential of support from Adelson could have influenced the group’s decision to hire the Las Vegas organizer.
Review-Journal publisher Craig Moon told Marijuana.com in an email that “the editorial was written at my request, the [Adelson] family was not involved.” But he did not elaborate about what led to the paper’s sudden shift away from years of supporting cannabis policy reform.
No matter the cause of the reversal, it could have a big impact in a close election. Undecided voters often look to endorsements from opinion leaders such as newspaper editorial boards when making up their minds on ballot questions, so if polls are tight as Election Day approaches, the paper’s new stance could make the difference between legalization and continued prohibition in Nevada, especially if Adelson pressures it to weigh in repeatedly leading up to November.
This piece has been updated to add comment from Moon and Tvert.
Photo Courtesy of LittleStocker.