DENVER — Federal drug czar John P. Walters barnstormed through Colorado and Nevada this week to criticize two ballot initiatives that would legalize marijuana as polls showed the proposals inching too close for comfort.
“Over 30 years of painful experience has shown us that more substance abuse doesn’t make anyone’s life safer or better,” Mr. Walters told students at South High School in Denver. “We need to make it clear that we’re going to push back.”
Mr. Walters made two appearances in Colorado Wednesday before flying to Nevada for a speech yesterday to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. Both states are considering measures that would legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for those 21 or older.
Polls show the initiatives trailing, but by single digits. The Colorado measure, Amendment 44, lags by a margin of 29 percent to 36 percent, with 35 percent undecided, according to a SurveyUSA poll taken Sept. 28 for NBC affiliate KUSA-TV.
Question 7, the Nevada proposal, has 42 percent of voters in favor and 51 percent against, with 7 percent undecided, according to a Sept. 26 poll conducted for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Mr. Walters’ arrival prompted an outcry from the pro-marijuana campaigns in both states, which accused him of spending taxpayer dollars to meddle in state affairs. In Nevada, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana used the occasion to debut a television ad criticizing the use of “taxpayer dollars” on the drug czar’s campaign stops.
“D.C. has the money to interfere in a Nevada election, but they want to slash our homeland security funding?” says the ad, which shows a photo of Mr. Walters. “Tell Washington to get their priorities straight.”
Mason Tvert, campaign manager of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, the group behind Amendment 44, called Mr. Walters a “federal agent” who was “coming to our state and lying about a state initiative.”
Part of the drug czar’s charge is to oppose initiatives and legislation that would promote substance abuse, said Walters spokesman Jennifer de Vallance.
Both states have a history of marijuana proposals: In 2002, Nevada defeated a legalization measure by 61 to 39 percent. In 2004, Denver approved a citywide legalization proposal in a campaign, run by Mr. Tvert, that called marijuana safer than alcohol.
The campaigns are relying on different strategies. Mr. Tvert continues to push the theme that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, while the Nevada group emphasizes that marijuana can be better regulated and controlled if it’s legal.
While Mr. Walters was awarding Colorado a $15 million federal grant for drug screening, the Amendment 44 campaign unveiled a billboard featuring a picture of the drug czar saying that marijuana is the “safest thing in the world.”
The quote comes from “Pete’s Couch,” an anti-marijuana ad produced for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, showing three teenage boys who prefer sitting on a couch and smoking pot to leaving the house.
“I smoked weed, and nobody died,” says a teenager in the ad, which plays on the Internet sites YouTube and abovetheinfluence.com. Instead of leading an active life, “you wanna keep yourself alive; you go over to Pete’s and sit on his couch until you’re 86. Safest thing in the world.”
Mr. Walters called the billboard quote “a lie” and said marijuana can cause “demotivational syndrome,” which prompts people to lose interest in leading normal lives in favor of drug use.
“Does Colorado need more young people in the basement on a couch wasting their lives?” he said.
He also blamed the marijuana-legalization push on the efforts of “three billionaires,” Democratic Party financier George Soros, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling and insurance magnate Peter Lewis, whom he accused of conducting a “social experiment” at the expense of Coloradans.
The three have backed medical-marijuana and legalization advocacy groups over the years.