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Nevada medical marijuana dispensary rules clear another hurdle

“We’re just about there.”

That’s what Marla McDade Williams, deputy administrator of the Nevada medical marijuana program, said Friday morning before the state Board of Health approved regulations to regulate new dispensaries that are expected to open later this year.

“After this, it’s full steam ahead,” she added after the public hearing. “Or, it’s back to the drawing board, depending on what the Legislative Commission does.” She was referring to the last hurdle before medical marijuana takes effect on April 1.

Attorneys, future dispensary owners, security analysts and consultants all crowded into a small room Friday to speak their minds in what was the last public hearing on medical marijuana dispensaries by the seven-member state Board of Health.

And after the hearing ended, Richard Whitley, director of the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health, adopted the new law’s regulations, setting the stage for a final review by the Legislative Commission on March 28.

The Legislature in 2013 overwhelmingly approved Assembly Bill 374 authorizing 66 dispensaries to operate in the Silver State, 40 of them in Clark County. The law ended a 12-year drought in which medical marijuana patients, having no place to buy their medications, were forced to grow their own plants.

The regulations have been modified at least 70 times since the bill’s approval — from security systems to setbacks from neighborhoods to ranking and processing applications.

At Friday’s hearing, a union representative for an estimated 3,000 medical marijuana workers in the U.S. praised the state for what he called a “merit-based” application process.

“Choosing the best and the most qualified makes it a ‘Race to the Top’ atmosphere, and that’s important,” said Dan Rush, who flew from Washington, D.C., where he serves as director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, CLC.

Rush’s workers hail from all over the country, including Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington state. Many of them work on the periphery of the dispensaries, whether it’s hauling and transporting the medication, cultivating the plant, or, in some cases, processing it so that it can be eaten, made into a lotion that’s rubbed on the body, or even dropped into the back of the mouth with a tiny eye dropper.

“It might be hard to imagine,” Rush said, “but this sort of union representation has been going on for a few years now, and Nevada looks like it could be next.”

He added: “Just like any other worker, medical marijuana workers have rights that need to be protected in the workplace.”

But before any of that happens, Nevada first needs to see whether it low-balled or overestimated the number of dispensaries in the state at 66. Right now, there are nearly 5,000 registered medical marijuana card-holders, although that number is starting to grow as the state readies itself to accept applications for dispensaries, McDade Williams said.

“That’s the $100,000 question,” said McDade Williams. “The ‘When?’ When are we going to begin the process of accepting them and reviewing them?”

For the moment, she’s still trying to fill at least a half dozen positions in the newly created medical marijuana office with more than $1 million from the state. Such jobs range from supervisors to inspectors to contractors who will review the dispensary applications that are expected to flood the office.

Nobody will be caught off guard, she said.

There will be a 45-day notice announcing the date applications will be accepted. Once the application period opens, there will only be a 10-day window for accepting them. After the application period closes, the state must make a decision on each application within 90 days of receiving it.

But even before a dispensary can open, a state lab needs to be ready to test the marijuana.

Before that, the plant needs to be cultivated.

And to avoid having to import seeds from other states to begin the growing process, dispensary owners may buy specific strains from current patients in the state, the law stipulates.

Vicki Higgins, a secretary and member of the Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada, said she’s looking forward to patients helping the industry get off its feet.

“The biggest misunderstanding about medical marijuana is that it’s not an actual medicine,” she said. “People have this stereotype of a hippie in their head. But we as advocates have worked hard to explain that the concentrates have healing power … it can get you through the day without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.”

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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