Las Vegas has been called the entertainment mecca of the world.
It’s a place where gambling goes on 24 hours a day, nude dancers of both sexes appear onstage every night, and prostitution, while not legal, is widespread.
So you might think that people being allowed to use medical marijuana to relieve their pain and ills would fit right in, especially when it’s under a doctor’s orders.
If that’s what you thought, you’d be wrong.
A law approved by the Nevada Legislature in 2013 allows 40 medical marijuana dispensaries to be opened in Clark County, complete with security, taxes and regulations.
If all goes as planned, such dispensaries could go on line later this year throughout Nevada.
But the state’s two biggest cities, Las Vegas and Henderson, and a few Clark County commissioners aren’t particularly excited about the proposed business ventures.
Last week, Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic said he was going to temporarily “bow out” from drafting the city’s medical pot ordinance because the dispensaries, which are legal under Nevada law, violate federal law.
He wrote a letter to the State Bar of Nevada, asking for its opinion.
“City attorneys across the country are dealing with the same issue,” Jerbic said in an interview. “The bottom line is that state law does not invalidate federal law. And the only legal advice I can really give at this point is not to do it. Don’t commit a crime.”
His legal quandary comes two weeks after the Henderson City Council imposed a six-month moratorium on dispensary land use applications and permits for the same reason. Ditto goes for the city of Mesquite.
And Las Vegas was the first Southern Nevada city to approve a moratorium late summer after its business licensing department was flooded with calls from enthusiastic applicants from across the country.
Now, Mayor Carolyn Goodman and a few City Council members are having reservations about welcoming the pot dispensaries.
The same goes for a few county commissioners, who represent the world-famous Strip.
These second thoughts are occurring while medical marijuana dispensaries are springing up around the country.
city seeks legal representation
Jerbic’s decision to withdraw, if only temporarily, left the city scrambling for another attorney to handle the case as the state prepares to finalize the new law’s regulations on April 1. Those rules will pave the way for 66 dispensaries, 40 of them in Clark County, including the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Mesquite.
After wrestling with the issue as far back as October, the city attorney made his intentions clear last week, taking a few of the council members off guard and drawing their criticism.
Councilman Bob Coffin, who supports the dispensaries, called the recusal a “chicken move,” given the precedents established in Colorado, Washington and other states.
Coffin said attorneys from other states have had no problems with dispensaries, so why is Jerbic balking.
Councilman Steve Ross praised the move, calling it sensibly cautionary and in the city’s best interest.
“I applaud it,” he said. “What some people don’t understand is that the federal government could come in at any time and seize our assets if we started allowing dispensaries. That’s the deep dark crazy scenario at work, but I don’t think it will ever happen.”
The Obama administration has made it clear that the enforcement of federal marijuana laws is a low priority.
With this in mind, Coffin thinks the city had better get moving on the ordinance soon or prepare for possibly “losing all control” with either a weak ordinance or no ordinance at all.
Councilman Bob Beers elaborated, saying he’s not particularly fond of the “present interpretation of the state law,” which allows the state to hand-pick the dispensary applicants, then rank them before handing them over to the city.
He said that could be a recipe for disaster. If the city is going to pass an ordinance, then it should be the one signing off on the applicants, not the state.
“I do not have a problem with medical marijuana,” Beers said. “But these are the sorts of issues that the city is going to have to address before we decide to go there. But we’re going to have to just wait and see what the state hands down.”
County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who favors the diepensaries, also doesn’t like the fact that the state might pick their operators.
“We’re running into one problem here: the determination of who gets to own and operate them,” Sisolak said. “And the issue for me is, if you put it in my ward, then I have to deal with the fallout from upset constituents. I want to make sure that it’s an upstanding company that’s doing it the right way.”
author of bill frustrated
State Sen. Richard Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, the author of Senate Bill 374 that authorized the dispensaries, is a bit upset by all the indecision. His bill was intended to end a decade of Nevada having a medical pot law on the books but failing to provide places where patients could actually buy the drug.
He said he’s going to ask the County Commission to write all of its cities and ask them to make a decision one way or another.
“I just wish people would stop sitting on their hands, and bite the bullet and tell us: ‘Yes, we want the dispensaries,’ or ‘No, we don’t want the dispensaries,’ ” he said. ” It’s a pretty simple question, and meanwhile patients, real patients — mind you — are suffering.”
Time is of essence because if all the major cities in the county decide against the dispensaries, then the county could end up holding the entire bag of 40. And deciding where to place those 40 would take some time.
“I’m thinking at least a few on the Strip, in county territory,” Segerblom said. “I just don’t get it, though. I’ve gotta say. In a city like Las Vegas, where everything supposedly happens and where everything stays, here we are debating this in the 21st century while cities across the country are having no problem with it.”
Some of the Las Vegas council members say they’re also concerned about coming up with a solid law rather than a flimsy one, which is the reason for the delay.
“It’s one thing to say you’re OK with medical marijuana being legal in the state,” said Sam Bateman, a Henderson City Councilman and prosecutor for the Clark County district attorney’s office. “It’s quite another thing to say, ‘Do we want this in our backyard? Do we want to be licensing businesses that are conducting business that is illegal by the federal government?’ ”
Said Las Vegas Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian: “I just want it to be clean. I don’t want it to start getting wildly out of control and before we know it everybody is getting their hands on it and not just the patients.”
conflict with u.s. law an issue
Mayor Goodman said she will vote against the dispensaries unless the federal government reverses its law.
“We don’t want to be meddling with the federal government,” she said.
But if the law is changed, she said she would make sure that the marijuana was sold at fair market value, so that nobody could be gouged, and that it was certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Medical pot advocates counter that such a thing might be a long time in coming.
Las Vegas Councilman Ricki Barlow, who visited California and Arizona to get a firsthand look at how their dispensaries operate, said he was “highly impressed” with the manner in which the different grow houses and dispensaries were able to “drill down deep and pull out the components of the dope and extract the medicinal qualities from it.”
“It’s not just about inhaling,” he said. “There are a variety of lollipops and brownies that you can eat.”
Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony, a former Metro police officer, scoffed at the notion that a weed can actually contain medicinal qualities. It hasn’t even been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration yet, he noted.
“It’s just an excuse for some people to get high,” he said, adding that its usage could lead to harder drugs, not an uncommon school of thought in law enforcement.
But don’t tell that to Mike Betts and Barry Stieb, Las Vegas nightclub workers who hope to open their own dispensary.
In fact, they are probably the most chill of the bunch in the wake of the bureaucratic delays.
Some strains of medical marijuana can be good for anxiety, said Stieb, 32.
“Other strains can actually help eliminate seizures,” said Betts, 28.
One strain called “Charlotte’s Web” helped a Colorado girl named Charlotte to cope with Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy that afflicts mostly children under the age of 5, he said.
Just last week, the state legislature in Florida was entertaining the notion of passing a medical marijuana bill to help children with seizures.
As it turns out, the oil in that strain has helped Charlotte to survive, according to her mother, who testified at a legislative hearing in Tallahassee last week.
Whether the new state law ends up being a success largely depends on Marla McDade Williams, the deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health. She’s still waiting for funding to staff the office that will handle the dispensary applications.
The cost to apply is $5,000, and it’s nonrefundable. The cost for the license itself is $30,000. Every year, it can be renewed at a cost of $5,000.
And when exactly are the applications going to get rolling?
“That’s the $100,000 question. My gut instinct is that we’ll start accepting them in the late spring or early summer,” she said several weeks ago.
But that’s always subject to change.
rules for dispensaries devised
Once she starts the program, it will take anywhere between 130 to 160 days for the approvals to start rolling in, Williams said.
Applicants need to pass criminal background checks and demonstrate that they have $250,000 in cash or assets that can be converted to cash in 30 days. But mostly they have to show the state that their dispensary will be safe, that there’s a good deal of security and that they’re going to accept only legitimate medical marijuana cards.
“We want to make double sure the product doesn’t walk out the door and into the illegal market,” McDade Williams said.
So far the County Commission is the only entity that has directed its staff to start preparing for the onslaught, although even a few of the county commissioners have their reservations.
In a perfect world, Commissioner Susan Brager said it would be nice if the Legislature would revisit the issue and extend the time frame.
“It’s an awesome task before us,” she said. “Before we know it, April 1 is tomorrow.”
As for City Attorney Jerbic’s letter?
Phil Pattee, assistant state bar counsel in Las Vegas, handles ethics cases, and said that anytime the U.S. attorney’s office indicts or convicts a lawyer for either a minor infraction or a felony, it’s a big deal.
“We are required to notify the Nevada Supreme Court, and they take appropriate actions,” he said.
“With a guy as bright as Brad, he’s erring on the side of caution,” Pattee said, adding: “We’re sort of in limbo for medical marijuana, but it will all shake out eventually.”
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.