Arrests disrupt medical pot convention in Las Vegas

Las Vegas police and federal agents arrested 10 people and seized drugs over the weekend at Hempcon, a marijuana education convention at the Cashman Center.

People who were there described seeing police dogs around the event, as well as officers on the roof of the building, apparently looking for people smoking marijuana.

The arrests outraged event organizers, and some attendees said they left patients frightened as Nevada’s first legal dispensaries prepare to open.

“It’s disheartening for our whole community,” said Jennifer Solis, who’s with Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada, or WECAN, and was at the event.

From Friday to Sunday, officers shut down five booths, arrested 10 people and cited three others on charges including drug possession, possession with intent to sell and transporting a controlled substance, said officer Laura Meltzer, a Metro spokeswoman. She said officers seized marijuana, hashish, marijuana seeds, edible products containing THC and psilocybin mushrooms.

Meltzer said Metro narcotics detectives and Hempcon organizers had spoken before the event, and organizers told attendees they had to follow the law.

Nevada allows medical use of marijuana by patients with state-issued cards. But it’s illegal to sell the drug without a state dispensary license, and it’s illegal for anyone to use it in public.

Asked about the criticism of the arrests, Meltzer said, “It is incumbent upon the people who are attending this and who are conducting this to be aware of Nevada state law.”

Mark Saint, an activist who was at the convention Friday, said the police stance was hypocritical since officers have looked the other way at similar events while people used marijuana.

The arrests were made by a task force called Southern Nevada Cannabis Operation and Regional Enforcement, which includes Metro, Henderson police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen said a federal agent is on the task force, but that Las Vegas police led the operation.

Meltzer said the names of those arrested were not available Tuesday. Police made no public announcement about the operation and provided information only in response to questions from the Review-Journal.

Jason Sturtsman, a patient advocate and owner of a medical marijuana growing operation, wondered whether that’s because police know how much public attitudes toward marijuana have shifted.

“It just seems like a waste of resources,” said Sturtsman, who was not at the event but heard about the arrests.

People who were there said police seemed to become more aggressive as the weekend went on.

On Friday, officers arrested some people who were selling marijuana, said Kurt Duchac, a board member of WECAN. Duchac said those arrests were understandable, since it’s illegal to sell without a license.

But on Saturday, he said, officers started arresting patients who were peacefully using marijuana in their cars. And on Sunday, a SWAT vehicle showed up and officers were on the roof of the building.

“They were targeting patients, people for simply having it on them,” Duchac said. “They were running dogs through there.”

Inside, Duchac said, officers were “trashing” booths and ripping open boxes looking for drugs. People gathered around to watch, with some filming police and yelling at them.

“It was ugly,” Duchac said.

Meltzer said she did not know details of how the operation was conducted and that the task force commander was not available for comment Tuesday.

Hempcon, which holds conventions around the country, is meant to be an educational event where vendors can meet customers and patients can find information. Its website says attendees are not allowed to bring drugs or drug paraphernalia.

Organizers didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. On their Facebook page, they wrote in a post Monday: “We deeply regret the unfortunate police activity during the Las Vegas Hempcon over the weekend of May 15-17. It was a blow to our Vendors, the attendees, the Community as a whole, and to us as well. It is sad that our industry is subject to such indiscriminate and prejudicial behavior by law enforcement, but we as a Community will PERSEVERE and not let our forward momentum be derailed by them.”

Solis, who has organized another marijuana-themed event, said police told her such crackdowns are a backlash to an event last year called Hempfest. After that event, Solis said, police were embarrassed by photos that showed people smoking marijuana while officers simply watched.

“You can thank your buddies at Hempfest for all this backlash,” she recalled one officer saying when she met with police after applying for her event permit.

Sturtsman said police crackdowns could pose challenges, since soon-to-open legal dispensaries are expecting many of their customers to be from out of state. And some of those patients might not realize using a legal drug is outlawed in public places.

“I think it’s going to be a growing problem in Las Vegas when these dispensaries open up … where can these individuals consume cannabis in a safe place?” he said.

Contact Eric Hartley at ehartley@reviewjournal.com or 702-550-9229. Find him on Twitter: @ethartley.