Marriage, Marijuana and the Shape of Things to Come

Is Nevada taking a libertarian turn on social issues?

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Between medical marijuana and challenges to gay marriage, Nevada may finally be living up to the libertarian heritage it long has claimed. Ironically, or perhaps logically, Democrats may be leading Republicans toward that view.

Past and present Nevadans have divined a strong libertarian bent, and not just because Ron Paul’s followers tried to take over the Republican Party in recent years. From its beginnings in 1864, Nevadans have demanded limited government and low taxes, and groused about federal interference that ranged from eliminating silver from circulation in 1873 to the past 30 years of trying to bring nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

But as a critic once said of a corrupt politician, Nevada preached the old-time virtues and practiced the old-time vices. Federal laws governing miners and ranchers may have been and remain a no-no in wide swaths of the state, but federal spending is almost always welcome, from dam projects to military bases. Even the silly Missile X project and nuclear waste attracted some support at first (and the latter still does in a few quarters).

More crucially, Nevada became more socially conservative. In the 1990s, the tourism industry’s emphasis on family attractions was based partly on the need to appeal to baby boomers, but the growing political popularity of “family values” also played a role. In the early 2000s, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage passed while efforts to legalize marijuana failed. If libertarianism means keeping government out of our business, it includes our personal business, especially our bedrooms.

But Representative Dina Titus, a Democrat, is co-sponsoring several bills (and Representative Steven Horsford’s office reports he supports her efforts) designed, as she put it, to protect the rights of states to allow the distribution and use of medical marijuana without worrying about federal prosecution, and to make sense of a “legal patchwork of conflicting” regulations. The original sponsor of one of the bills is Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman from California so far to the right that he meets the far left coming around. Another bill would allow businesses distributing the stuff to open bank accounts. These measures would help Nevada, where the driving force behind state legislation supporting medical marijuana has been another Democrat, state Senator Tick Segerblom.

And the Clark County Commission and Las Vegas City Council approved ordinances permitting medical marijuana dispensaries. One of the two county commissioners who dissented, Chris Giunchigliani, wrote the state law allowing the use of medical marijuana and said she simply disliked certain parts of the ordinance, not the principle itself. On the City Council, the leading advocate was a Democrat, Bob Coffin, joined by, among others, Bob Beers, who’s as Republican as it gets.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s attorney general, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, decided not to try to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage, now being challenged at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Republican Governor Brian Sandoval, previously outspoken in supporting the prohibition, agreed.

So, what happened?

Partly, gen-X and millennials. Surveys by the Pew Center show younger Americans may not identify with a particular political party, but in their open-mindedness on social issues they lean toward a more liberal sensibility.

More anecdotally, I give my Nevada history classes an assignment to suggest changes in the Nevada Constitution as a way for them to study the document. Overwhelmingly, the part of the constitution they most frequently suggest changing is the ban on gay marriage.

In 1948, Hubert Humphrey suggested that the then-Southern-dominated Democratic Party “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Democrats lost those Southerners for doing so, but ended up on the right side of history. Nevadans are doing that now.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.