Las Vegas council might ask for more time on medical marijuana

The city of Las Vegas, which hasn’t been rushing to make it possible for people to open medical marijuana establishments, might push back a moratorium set to expire March 17 to Sept. 15.

“This is not going over well with me,” City Councilman Bob Coffin said Friday. He is the strongest proponent of medical marijuana on the City Council because of his chronic back pain. “I will not support a six-month moratorium.”

A bill will be introduced at Wednesday’s council meeting that would extend the moratorium blocking the city from accepting or considering any applications for land use, business licenses, building permits or other applications that would move the medical marijuana process forward.

The bill includes language that the moratorium could end sooner if the city adopts all the necessary code ordinance amendments involving either prohibiting or permitting medical marijuana establishments, including cultivating, manufacturing or dispensing medical marijuana.

The council is divided on whether medical marijuana establishments should be allowed within the city limits and hasn’t moved swiftly on the idea. Mayor Carolyn Goodman recently asked staffers for extensive research on the issues, suggesting that a staffer go to Amsterdam for research.

The Legislature approved legalizing medical marijuana in 2013, and state regulations are due by April 1. Clark County is working to get its regulations finished by that time. If cities in Clark County do not want their allotted 10 marijuana establishments, then those licenses would revert to the county. Las Vegas has not yet formally approved going forward.

Coffin has said there are four votes to approve medical marijuana in city limits — himself, Bob Beers, Steve Ross and Ricki Barlow — but Barlow has not confirmed his position yet. Councilman Stavros Anthony is the strongest opponent, followed by Lois Tarkanian, while the mayor is hesitant.

The Legislature has allowed the city to grant 10 licenses for dispensaries, labs, grow houses or manufacturing sites.

Coffin is unhappy with the “slow walk getting this done, it’s been a slow walk for six months. … It looks like we’re stalling even if we’re not.”

He said the legal staff believes the moratorium is necessary to protect the city from lawsuits from people who believe they have rights once the March 17 moratorium expires. Coffin said the city attorney’s office is being “too risk averse.”

“I don’t want the legal guys to run this train,” Coffin said.

City Manager Betsy Fretwell said the city is not stalling, but more time is needed to write local ordinances and coordinate with still unwritten regulations from the state.

In the meantime, she said, “the council will be addressing issues piece by piece” to create a regulatory framework. The moratorium doesn’t mean that work stops by the council; it will continue, she said.

“If the council approves the regulations, the moratorium goes away.”

She said the bill was staff-driven because of the lack of time to finish work before the existing moratorium expires.

Regarding the legal cautions, Fretwell said, “Everybody’s being prudent and everybody is bringing together their expertise. We’re trying to be cautious.”

City Attorney Brad Jerbic initially advised the council against going forward with writing ordinances because possession of marijuana — medical or recreational — remains a federal felony. He said tax dollars raised for the city would constitute “drug money.”

He said he was fearful of losing his law license if he advised the council how to go forward.

On Thursday, the board of governors of the State Bar of Nevada voted to change the ethics rules Jerbic feared he would violate.

If the Nevada Supreme Court agrees to make the change, language would be added saying “a lawyer shall not be in violation of these rules or subject to discipline for engaging in conduct, or for counseling or assisting a client to engage in conduct, that by virtue of a specific provision of Nevada state law and implementing regulations is either (a) permitted, or (b) within an affirmative defense to prosecution under state criminal law, solely because that same conduct, standing alone, may violate federal law.”

This language would be added to the admonition that lawyers should not help clients with conduct the lawyers know is criminal or fraudulent.

Contact reporter Jane Ann Morrison at jmorrison@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0275.