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Cloud of politics hovers over medical marijuana license process


The medical marijuana dispensary license applicant swore he could smell something in the air inside Clark County government, and it wasn’t pot smoke.

It was the malodor of politics.

Why, he recently asked after we agreed he’d remain anonymous, were applicants with connections to the state’s gaming industry receiving special consideration? Couldn’t they have easily anticipated the state Gaming Control Board would take issue with their relationship with a drug that’s against federal law to sell? Shouldn’t they have done their due diligence?

And if they were actually taken by surprise by Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett’s admonishment to steer clear of medical marijuana licensing for the foreseeable future, what did that say about their judgment? Was it clouded by the lucrative potential of owning a coveted dispensary license?

When the Clark County Commission voted to allow all applicants to reassess their ownership structure on their applications, weren’t the elected officials simply allowing the players with casino industry connections a do-over?

“Where’s the fairness in that?” he asked recently.

He concluded, as some others have, that in this case it was better to ask the gaming regulators and commissioners for forgiveness than for permission.

For the record, the application process is again closed, and the commission has set aside much of the coming week for a marathon public hearing on the dispensary issue.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani defended the decision to briefly reopen the process, and observed Friday, “Everyone was caught off guard with the Gaming Control thing.” She added that every applicant was allowed to amend its investor list and ownership structure.

But no one can reasonably deny that reopening the application process, for whatever reason, only added to the air of politics in a process already riddled with well-connected applicants, some of whom have known commission members throughout their careers.

It will be interesting to see whether those applicants who changed ownership are among those who receive the county’s approval.

The commission recently made the decision to hold more than two days of hearings to consider each of the more than 80 dispensary applications before it.

At the end of that laborious process, with all zoning issues answered, commissioners will then vote to forward 18 applicants to the state with recommendations for license approval.

The county controls 18 licenses, and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak is aggressively shepherding the process. It was Sisolak who succeeded in persuading a majority of commissioners to limit the recommendations to the number of available licenses.

The dispensary applicant, who displayed a working knowledge of Southern Nevada’s mercurial political structure, noted the obvious potential for a problem should the state decide to disqualify one or more of the 18 chosen licensees.

“What if the state doesn’t like it?” he asked. “Do they now go back to the county? Are we supposed to wait around, keep our properties tied up, keep the (business) entity going, keep paying lawyers? It doesn’t make sense.”

Giunchigliani agrees. She said she still believes limiting the number to 18 is a mistake with substantial potential downsides.

“It’s arbitrary,” Giunchigliani says. “There’s no rationale to it. ... If we have 52 that qualify, I think we should send 52 to the state.”

Her commission colleagues obviously disagreed.

What if an applicant meets the land use and zoning qualifications at the county level and can pass inspection with the state? Shouldn’t they also receive consideration?

And if they feel snubbed after making a substantial investment in the licensing process, do you suppose they’ll just tip their caps and stroll off into the hazy Nevada sunset?

Giunchigliani doesn’t think so.

“We should send all those that qualify to the state,” she says. “This issue of only sending the 18 is ludicrous, in my mind.”

As a community, we should hope the smoke of the medical marijuana issue begins to clear in the coming week.

But given the politics, unanswered questions and potential for litigation, what are the chances of that happening?

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.