Many see licensing process as a sham

He saw the question coming, but then who wouldn’t?

Having failed to receive a recommendation from the Clark County Commission for a coveted state medical marijuana dispensary license for Southern Nevada, the jilted applicant knew he’d be asked if he was just a sore loser.

“I’m not really complaining about the loss,” he says. “I’m complaining because it was a cheat, in my opinion. I got fooled. They put us all through this pretend contest, and it cost us a lot of money.”

That’s a bold statement. Although Clark County government often has been politically chummy to the point of incest, the applicant was saying the fix was in.

With more than 80 dispensary license applications vying for just 18 county approvals — by law, the state has the final say — there were bound to be a lot of also-rans. That’s the breaks. The licenses are potentially worth many millions to the winners, and the competition figured to be cutthroat.

But actually fixed, as in decided ahead of time?

Don’t take his word for it, the applicant says. Ask his lawyer, a fellow with plenty of experience watching the local political landscape.

“This isn’t sour grapes because his application wasn’t granted,” the attorney says. “This is sour grapes because the County Commission went through this whole charade of requiring all the applicants to produce extremely detailed applications within a four-week process. Everyone just busted their ass ... to get them in on time. The commissioners pre-empted the state and never did say they were going to decide this on the merits.”

That’s because making a decision on the merits would have produced many more qualified applicants than the 18 who made the cut, the lawyer says. Like his client, for instance. Or some others the state might have preferred to the fair-haired favorites, he says.

“When it actually came up for the hearing, virtually not a single question was asked about a single application,” the attorney says.

The applicant and lawyer agreed to speak on the condition that their names not be used. The applicant is considering trying for a dispensary license in another local jurisdiction, and the attorney has to eat lunch in this town.

For the record, they’re not the only participants in the process who came away feeling a bit like carnival rubes. I’ve received other complaints. Perhaps one day those grousing behind the scenes will decide to step up on the record.

“Business people incurred all this time and expense, really, for nothing,” the applicant says. “That’s what is disheartening about the process.”

The applicant estimates he spent $100,000 on the application, attorney fees and associated costs. He paid for site visits, studied available materials, interviewed dispensary owners in other states.

Although he had no previous experience with medical pot dispensaries — how many folks do? — “We took it seriously, just like any other business,” he says.

Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who more than any other member of the elected panel took control of the dispensary recommendation process, says he also took things seriously. He educated himself about the best way to move forward.

Sisolak defends his decisions and the process.

“I met with absolutely every single applicant that wanted to meet with me,” he says. “I had dozens and dozens of meetings, in and out of the office. I went to facilities. I asked questions. There was a lot of interaction” and follow-up phone calls with applicants.

“I think that there’s obviously going to be disappointment,” Sisolak adds. “If we would not have had a limit of 18, we certainly would have approved a lot more than we did. … I don’t know of another way we could have done it.”

Sisolak says some applicants were clearly better prepared than others. Some had chosen locations based on potential traffic, perhaps not realizing those areas also would draw the most applicants. Others chose areas not as likely to draw competing applications. Developer Randy Black, for instance, was the lone applicant for the Laughlin area.

Other applicants appeared to have been frustrated by criticism from neighbors during the lengthy hearing reviewing each application.

But, Sisolak says, that’s also part of the public vetting process.

The commissioner reminds skeptics that some of the winners were represented by neither lobbyists nor well-connected lawyers.

“It was kind of like school projects,” he says. “Some people put more time in than others. ... I think we made the best decisions given the information that we had.”

Except that those grown-up school projects cost the applicants a lot more than lunch money.

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.