Las Vegas council draws heat over delaying marijuana dispensary rules

Medical marijuana businesses looking to file applications to set up shop in Nevada’s biggest city will have to wait another six months under an ordinance approved Wednesday.

The Las Vegas City Council voted 7-0 in favor of a moratorium against land use, building permit or business license applications for medical marijuana businesses, despite pressure from patients and others tired of waiting for action.

The moratorium is intended to give the council time to update city code to accommodate marijuana businesses while adhering to state regulations that are still being written.

“We are going to get there but you have to be patient for us so we get it done right,” said Councilman Steve Ross. “We can’t just throw it out there and think it is going to work.”

But people who showed up to testify on the subject were in no mood to indulge the council’s pleas for patience after being denied a chance to speak despite waiting more than three hours for the opportunity.

When making a motion to approve the moratorium, Mayor Carolyn Goodman said there would be no opportunity for public comment. She said the 10 or so people who showed up to testify had a chance to speak when the bill was at the council’s Recommending Committee on Sept. 3.

City Attorney Brad Jerbic told council members that while they had the option of hearing public comment, the open comment period at the beginning of the meeting and the previous meeting were enough to meet requirements of the state open meeting law.

“If you want to hear more comment, it is at your discretion,” Jerbic said.

The move rankled people who waited through lengthy discussions about everything from a sandwich shop proposed in City Hall to a report on the efficiency of development services programs before being told their input wasn’t welcome.

“I was very upset,” said Bruce Gale, an attorney and medical marijuana advocate who had his testimony shut down. “I think everyone should have been given an opportunity to be heard.”

Attorney Marc TerBeek, who specializes in medical marijuana regulatory issues, said the city is “putting its head in the sand” hoping to avoid accommodating the businesses altogether.

TerBeek said the strategy could backfire, however, because once state regulations are in place businesses will open without going through the city at all.

“People are going to open up … and the city of Las Vegas isn’t going to have its own voice in regulating and overseeing the process,” he said.

Interest in medical marijuana businesses is spiking in Nevada as a result of a bill signed into law in June that directed the Department of Health and Human Services to create regulations that would govern marijuana dispensaries.

The bill was a response to complaints from patients and others who said the Legislature’s previous requirement that people grow their own product or receive it from a caretaker was too onerous and pushed buyers into the black market.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 that legalized medical marijuana; the Legislature approved the “grow your own” framework in 2001.

The regulations are due by April 1, although state officials have said they might come sooner. City officials say they want to wait to make their own rules until they have a chance to see what the state does.

But patients and their advocates are tired of waiting.

“You are in pain, you are in medical need of something and you don’t have access to it,” Gale said.

Council members insisted they were sympathetic to patients’ plights but need more time to make sure whatever the city does complies with state law. They’re also worried even with support from the state, the city could run into problems with the federal government.

Although President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have stated they wouldn’t seek to prosecute medical marijuana, the drug remains illegal under federal law.

“With all due respect to the attorney general and president, they can’t do that,” said Mayor Pro Tem Stavros Anthony, a retired Las Vegas police officer. “I could be going from captain of vice (and) narcotics in my previous career to an accused drug trafficker on a federal level.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at and follow him on Twitter at @BenSpillman702.

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