Las Vegas Planning Commission wrestles with medical marijuana dispensary issues

On the eve of a City Council vote about whether to move forward to allow medical marijuana dispensaries within Las Vegas city limits, the city Planning Commission held a workshop Tuesday on how to regulate zoning if they do become a reality.

After listening to planning commissioners’ concerns, one proponent said they should realize they’re “regulating pot, not plutonium.”

Las Vegas Planning Director Flinn Fagg outlined zoning and business licensing suggestions to an audience of about 60 people eager for the city to approve medical marijuana dispensaries. Afterward, some commissioners expressed reservations about regulating dispensaries, even concerns about transportation issues.

Michael McAuliffe, political outreach director of WECAN, an advocacy group for medical pot, warned city officials against overregulating. “They’re trying to be so careful in their effort to avoid missteps,” he said of staff and commissioners.

Proponents said commissioners’ concerns about transportation issues were unfounded.

“There’s no evidence to suggest there would be explosions or fire,” one advocate said.

Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin, a medical marijuana proponent who wants to try it for his chronic back pain, said staff and commissioners are too restrictive.

“They’re probably overly cautious at this point,” Coffin said. “As they get used to it, they’ll find it is not as complicated as they thought.”

The planning commissioners would be forming zoning and business license regulations if the City Council goes ahead with allowing the dispensaries.

Staff suggested extensive regulations, such as banning dispensaries from locations close to schools, day cares or churches, prompting advocate Steven Cooksey, a licensing consultant for MadMen, to say officials were treating the dispensaries like a vice.

Along with several others, he urged officials not to restrict delivery of medical marijuana to patients because that forces frail patients to go to dispensaries.

The city has been hesitant since this past fall to give staff the OK to proceed and the agenda item on Wednesday states the council will receive a status report on the state regulations “and direct staff on the development of local regulations” regarding establishing dispensaries within city limits.

Voters approved allowing using pot for medical purposes in 2000, but didn’t outline how they could obtain it, other than decriminalizing the growth of marijuana for personal medical use. It took until 2013 before Senate Bill 374 was passed allowing dispensaries. Pushed by Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, the bill passed with bipartisan support. It would allow 40 dispensaries in jurisdictions within Clark County. While county officials embraced the idea, the city hasn’t been so eager, nor has Henderson. Las Vegas, Henderson and Mesquite placed moratoriums on the idea for now.

It’s possible Las Vegas could lift that moratorium at today’s council meeting. It would take four out of seven votes to approve moving forward. While 4-3 splits are commonplace at the Clark County Commission, they are less frequent in Las Vegas City Hall. Mayor Carolyn Goodman opposes the idea. So does retired police officer turned councilman Stavros Anthony.

Those who have openly favored the dispensaries include Coffin, Bob Beers and Ricki Barlow. That leaves Lois Tarkanian and Steve Ross as the deciding votes.

Among the power brokers in the audience were lawyers and consultants hoping to profit by guiding others toward a license and former GOP state Sen. Sandra Tiffany, who wants to get licensed herself to operate a dispensary.

Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic has told the council he cannot advise the council on how to draft a medical marijuana ordinance since pot possession for any reason remains in violation of federal law. He dropped by the planning commission’s work session before it started, but didn’t stay.

There are millions of dollars to be made by setting up the dispensaries. Cooksey’s firm has about half-a-dozen clients eager to set up shop across Nevada.

With a limitation of 40 dispensaries in Clark County, the competition for a license will be intense, especially since Nevada is the first state to allow providers of medical marijuana to sell at a profit, according to Cooksey. “Elsewhere it’s a nonprofit.”

With such restrictions, McAuliffe said it could end up that the number of owners “could fit in a stretch limo.”

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