Burning Man

Desert revelers endorse Question 9

For those who haven’t noticed, it’s election season. It’s a season of giving, of taking—and of give and take. It’s a beautiful thing really. It’s very similar to Christmas, only the homeless people’s advocates don’t see a spike in donations.

Election season is also endorsement season.

Burning Man—the annual counterculture event in the Black Rock Desert—has removed its largely apolitical gloves to encourage Nevadans to get out and vote on Question 9, the initiative that would legalize possession of up to three ounces of marijuana for people 21 and over. The quasi-endorsement came in the form of an e-mail, sent to Nevada subscribers of BM’s Internet newsletter, the Jack Rabbit Speaks.

Burning Man Mistress of Communication Marian Goodell says the e-mail may have slid a bit over the line in its effusiveness. While she didn’t write the note, she did edit it, and she said that the idea was more to encourage voter registration than to wholeheartedly support Question 9.

“When I read the draft here, I still believe the tone doesn’t tell people how to vote,” she says. “We were trying to get people to get out and register. I was really trying not to tell people how to vote.”

And, lest it be thought that she’s backpedaling, the second paragraph of the e-mail begins, “We are writing to you to encourage you to register TODAY to vote in the upcoming Nevada election.” The e-mail was sent on Oct. 4, the day before the deadline for voter registration for this election.

The problem comes a few sentences later, when the e-mail asserts, “If passed, this legislation would remove the threat of arrest and other penalties associated with adult use and possession of marijuana.”

At first glance, the idea seems pretty predictable: Burning Man supports Question 9, because it would make it easier and more hassle-free for people to get stoned in Black Rock City.

But Goodell raises some issues that have not been addressed in the rhetoric surrounding Question 9. For one, the constitutional amendment stipulates that it would be illegal to smoke “marijuana in a vehicle or public place, including a publicly operated carrier of passengers, a public park, or a place where gaming is permitted.”

It would be pretty difficult to argue that Black Rock Desert, High Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management) isn’t a park. But other legal precedents suggest that motor homes and tents may be legally considered private, subject to the same “reasonable cause” laws that prevent random searches of homes. The big question is, are there private spaces on public lands?

“The public vs. private state issue was big for us in 2000, and it returned this year,” Goodell says. “We’ve gone around and around with the BLM as to what’s private and what’s public. There’s one thing that we have definitely gotten clear from the BLM. We do not have 29,000 public spaces out there. We’ve got 29,000 private spaces out there. We’ve got a lot of public space, that’s true—roads, public art, cafes—but there are civil rights to privacy for people who come out there and spend a week or two.”

Still, Goodell sees the pot issue as bigger than Burning Man.

“Question 9 is an excellent opportunity to start a national dialogue about marijuana laws,” she says.

And that’s an endorsement that could be taken to the bank.