Bill to legalize marijuana draws spirited debate in Assembly panel

CARSON CITY — In a sometimes contentious legislative hearing Friday, Las Vegas physician Stephen Frye called marijuana a wonder drug that helps stop cancer, does not impair driving and should be available for all adults to enjoy.

But a line of police officers disagreed with him and urged members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee to reject Assembly Bill 402.

The bill sought by Assemblyman Joe Hogan, D-Las Vegas, calls for legalizing marijuana for people 21 and older. Co-sponsor Assemblyman Andrew Martin, D-Las Vegas, testified that legalizing pot could produce $470 million a year in tax revenue that would be earmarked for education spending.

“This is a game changer for the state,” Martin testified. “Whether we legalize it or not, the market is here. If we don’t, the money goes up in smoke.”

His tax assumption was based on 11.2 percent of Nevadans and visitors buying marijuana at rates of $100 to $300 an ounce. But the bill would allow residents to grow up to six marijuana plants in a locked place.

No action was taken on the bill, which must pass out of the committee by April 12, or it is considered dead.

Colorado and Washington state voters approved recreational marijuana in November, but no state Legislature ever has legalized the recreational use of drug.

Few members of the committee gave an indication of their views on the bill, other than Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, who challenged comments by Frye, a Democrat who lost a bid for Congress in 2012.

Frye made statements such as “marijuana kills cancer cells,” “this is lifesaving treatment,” “now we have an opportunity to provide this incredible medicine to our citizens,” “driving under the influence of marijuana is not more dangerous than driving under the influence of orange juice.”

Frye said in an interview that while no one should drive under the influence of either marijuana or alcohol, the number of total fatalities would drop if people only were driving under the influence of marijuana. He said American and New Zealand studies support his views.

The bill would allow people to use marijuana only in private places, but not drive under its influence.

North Las Vegas police officer Tom Bedwell called Frye’s statement about marijuana drivers “somewhat ludicrous.” He said a legal marijuana law would not eliminate dealers in the black market, who instead would go after children.

Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Police Department, also challenged Frye.

“I have seen the destructive impact of drug abuse and drug addiction,” he said “We believe if this bill passes, it will contribute to that.”

Reno police also challenged Frye. They noted a motorcycle officer on the verge of retirement was killed in 2002 by a woman high on marijuana who was not driving properly. The officer left behind four children.

Other than Hansen, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Gardernville, expressed opposition to the bill. In particular, he challenged a Retail Association of Nevada poll that found 56 percent of residents support legal marijuana. Wheeler quipped that some polls showed Mitt Romney winning the presidency.

Rather than having the Legislature implement legal marijuana, Wheeler said the supporters should put it before voters through an initiative petition.

In the 2006 election, 44 percent of residents backed a legal marijuana question. In 2002, 39 percent supported it.