CARSON CITY -- The Obama administration's decision to no longer prosecute medical marijuana users won't have any effect in Nevada, which never has had an approved patient face federal charges, state and law enforcement representatives said Monday.
"In other states, they were prosecuting people at distribution centers, at dispensaries," said Ben Kieckhefer, a spokesman for the state Health Division. "We never had that in our state. Our law allows people to grow their own."
Under a voter-approved medical marijuana program set up by the Legislature in 2001, 2,416 Nevadans are registered to grow as many as three mature and four immature marijuana plants. They may possess no more than 1 ounce of usable marijuana at any one time.
Kieckhefer said the number of Nevadans receiving medical marijuana cards has been growing by about 100 per month over the last six months.
These Nevadans' physicians stated in writing that their patients need marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or other medical problems.
Kieckhefer said the program's entire $400,000-a-year budget is supported from fees collected by medical marijuana card holders.
While Nevada users have not been prosecuted by the federal government, the state still gives all medical marijuana card holders a warning that they are not exempt from prosecution under federal law.
In other states, notably California, medical marijuana is not grown by patients, but available for purchase at dispensaries.
Some of the dispensaries are veritable marijuana drugstores, with many exotic sounding varieties of marijuana for sale.
Fourteen states have medical marijuana laws.
The federal government has gone after some of these businesses because of allegations that marijuana is sold to people without medical problems.
A U.S. Justice Department memo issued Monday advises prosecutors not to "focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws ..."
U.S. Attorney Dan Bodgen said the administration's medical marijuana policy, announced by Attorney General Eric Holder, "reinforces our thinking in the district of Nevada." No medical marijuana patients have been arrested on federal charges in Nevada, he said.
"We haven't had these kind of cases. We look for drug trafficking operations or major growing operations. Those we prosecute," Bogden said.
Lt. Laz Chavez, of the Metropolitan Police Department's narcotics unit, said the medical marijuana program has caused his agency "no problem whatsoever" and he doubts the new directive will affect anything in Nevada.
"We don't target medical marijuana users as long as they follow our law," Chavez said.
The law prohibits driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of the drug.
Steve Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed the directive won't cause dramatic change in Nevada.
"The gist is, if the user is complying with state law they won't bother you," said Fox, whose organization has twice put marijuana legalization questions on the state ballot.
Fox said the Marijuana Policy Project is evaluating whether to place another marijuana legalization question on the Nevada ballot in 2010. The 44 percent vote for legalization in 2006, which would have allowed possession of as much as 1 ounce of the drug by any adult, not just patients, was a record high number of support for any state in the nation, he said.
Former Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, who drew up the medical marijuana legislation, said the Justice Department ruling might induce more ill people to grow marijuana and doctors to sign their authorizations.
"The (threat of federal prosecution) was a deterrent for some people who were extremely ill," added Giunchigliani, now a Clark County commissioner. "It (the Justice Department memo) also will get more physicians (to issue authorizations) as well."
Maggie McLetchie, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, shares her view.
"Although no one was prosecuted to date, there was always the risk," she said. "We think this is an important development. The voters in Nevada have spoken and said it should be legal. We think medical marijuana is best left to the states."
Giunchigliani still favors a dispensary system where pharmacies or hospitals would give out medical marijuana.
She had proposed such a system in 2001, but it was rejected by other legislators. The Department of Agriculture could grow the marijuana and the state could earn income on the sales, she said.
Would-be Nevada patients who want to grow marijuana now are on their own in finding a physician who will write an authorization that they should receive medical marijuana card.
But the names of doctors who are willing to grant such requests often are found on the advertising pages of free weekly newspapers. No doctors in Nevada have ever been prosecuted for doing this for patients who don't need the drug.
In addition, there are Web sites, such as drreefer.com, that will put patients in contact with willing doctors for a fee.
Nevada medical marijuana users also must find their own seeds, a tricky situation since marijuana use is illegal for everyone but them.
Dozens of Web sites, however, offer marijuana seeds for sale, along with literature on growing the plants.
Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Nevada by other than a medical marijuana card holder is subject to a $600 fine.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.