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Should Nevada enforce federal law?

Last week, U.S. Senate Democrats stopped a measure withholding federal funding for cities that provide sanctuary from federal immigration authorities for illegal aliens. The move got little attention, but one conservative website reported:

"In a speech on the Senate floor before the vote, (Nevada's Sen. Harry) Reid defended states' and communities' right to 'do the things they think are appropriate.' But Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas argued that sanctuary cities are nullifying federal immigration law by refusing to enforce it."

This may seem a bit like the issues of the standoff at Bunkerville. But in that case, Cliven Bundy wanted the Clark County sheriff to enforce imaginary state and local laws and ordinances against the federal government. What Cornyn wants is for local officials to enforce actual federal laws.

I got to wondering whether there is any reason for Cornyn, or anyone else, to assume that local or state officials have any obligation to enforce federal law. I was wondering the same thing back in 2013 when Colorado and Washington made marijuana sales legal and I wondered whether the police in those states would enforce federal law anyway. After all, U.S. attorneys in California have busted medical marijuana dispensaries in spite of Barack Obama's promise they would not.

Let's have a flashback. Back in 1918, believe it or not, Nevadans voted (59 to 41 percent) to outlaw alcoholic beverages. It was in the last months of World War I, and supporters of prohibition painted it as a patriotic measure that would prevent grains needed for food for soldiers from going into the production of booze.

Shortly after the war, a federal alcohol prohibition amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution and alcoholic beverages became illegal nationwide. Nevada ratified it in 1919.

Whatever allure prohibition had for Nevadans wore off quickly and at its first opportunity, the Nevada Legislature repealed the state prohibition law and Nevada voters at one point petitioned (by a whopping statewide vote of 76 percent to 24 percent) for a federal constitutional convention to enact repeal of federal prohibition. The same kind of thing was happening in many states. Nevada stopped enforcing the federal law, and so did other states either by law or informally.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge called state governors — including Nevada's James Scrugham — to the White House to lobby them to help with prohibition enforcement. It's not clear whether Scrugham was just going through the motions, but he did return to Nevada and call local officials to a meeting in Elko on how to help with enforcement. There is little evidence that anything changed. The feds were on their own.

Two years after Colorado and Washington acted on marijuana, I called Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley to find out what options he would have if Nevada made marijuana legal in state statutes. He said local and federal law enforcement is now highly intertwined.

"It's a little bit complicated because I have people from my organization who are deputized as federal marshals, federal DEA, federal FBI," he said. "They actually carry federal credentials. ... Obviously, if the (decriminalization) law were to pass in Nevada I'm bound to abide by that law, and I would, but it would set up a conundrum for me. I'm also chair of HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Administration), and we have a marijuana initiative within HIDTA. So I would abide by Nevada law, and I would look to my federal partners because it would still be federally prohibited."

It wasn't entirely clear where that left him, but it's something that's going to have to be spelled out soon because making marijuana fully legal in state law will be on the Nevada ballot next year.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.