Licensing of marijuana businesses delayed; Mayor wants to ensure quality of drug

If Las Vegas is going to allow medical marijuana sales, Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s chief concern is ensuring patients who need it get access to quality cannabis.

Guaranteeing that could mean dispensaries should operate as nonprofits, Goodman said Tuesday during a City Council public hearing on how the businesses may operate locally. If one location can’t charge more than the other, all strains should be equal.

“They should not have to shop around,” Goodman said about Las Vegans who have a doctor’s permission to use marijuana in place of manufactured medicine.

By the end of the meeting, nothing was decided on business models for marijuana enterprises. Instead, a committee approved a proposal that, if passed by the full council, would put a six-month moratorium on business applications for proper licensing. The law would extend the current halt on land use, business license or building permit applications for marijuana businesses. And that left plenty of questions from City Council members and advocates of medicinal use of the pungent plant.

The moratorium is scheduled for a vote by the full council Sept. 18.

Proponents of the prolonged delay, including bill author and Mayor Pro Tem Stavros Anthony, said it will give Las Vegas time to create its own rules to work with forthcoming state regulations, expected by the end of the year. Opponents say the issue already has been deferred by more than a decade and is only hurting those already in physical pain and crminialized for using a natural remedy.

Stark contrasts in how or whether to implement state law show that some taboos are hard to get around even in a city adept at marketing its vices.

Goodman’s nonprofit approach didn’t fly with many in the group of 30 or so who showed up at City Hall to speak or listen. Adam Sternberg, of medical cannabis consulting group Compassion Nevada, said big pharmaceutical companies don’t consider their work philanthropic.

“They’re in it for profit as it is now,” Sternberg said. “We’re also in it for creating jobs and income for the citizens of the state.”

The City Council recommending committee’s process was informative, Anthony said, because he got to hear from folks who are closest to the debate, including cancer patients. So far, he said, big businesses and lobbyists have been working hard to bend his ear. Anthony said he hopes Nevada will serve as a model for other states when it comes to handling medical marijuana.

“I don’t know how this is going to shake out,” Anthony said. “I want to take the time to make sure we do this right.”

Government may be moving slowly, but a community of patients and potential growers already has a network and plan in place, according to Vicki Higgins, who spoke on behalf of WECAN: Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada. She said the city should proceed with licensing now because they won’t be able to accommodate the coming demand on the first day they open up shop.

The life cycle of a plant is about three months, Higgins said, then it must be dried. Many think that means for just smoking, but it can be made into lotion or oil to sooth pain. Besides local patients, Sin City visitors licensed in other locales that allow medicinal marijuana use will seek herbal remedies here. WECAN also has plans for on-site security as well as transportation.

“We can have things up and running by the first of the year if need be,” said Higgins, who said she received a medical marijuana prescription after having brain surgery for a condition that caused chronic migraines.

State law, signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval in June, will allow for as many as 40 marijuana dispensaries and farms in Clark County. Nevada voters approved in 2000 a constitutional amendment to allow patients to use marijuana with a doctor’s approval. They had to grow the marijuana themselves, but in 2012 Clark County District Judge Donald Mosley declared the law unconstitutional because it did not provide a legal way for some patients to acquire marijuana.

Nevada is home to about 3,800 patients who use the weed medicinally. Federal law still makes marijuana possession a crime, but the Department of Justice has said it will steer away from using its resources for enforcement regarding the seriously ill.

Councilman Bob Coffin said there are many overarching issues that must be considered in bringing legal marijuana sales to Las Vegas - including whether it should happen at all. Coffin proposed one change to Anthony’s bill.

Initially, Anthony’s proposal would have allowed the council to tack on another six months to the moratorium without jumping through its usual number of hoops with multiple readings. Coffin said half a year should be enough time, and Anthony and Goldman voted in favor of his change, making it unanimous decision by the three-member committee.

“This would push us to make a decision,” Coffin said.

Contact reporter Adam Kealoha Causey at acausey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0361. Follow @akcausey on Twitter.