On the day a jury could decide Steven Ficano’s fate on felony marijuana charges, less than 12 miles away, Nevada’s first medical marijuana dispensary is expected to start selling pot.
When the police knocked on Ficano’s northwest Las Vegas door almost three years ago, he didn’t think he was doing anything illegal, so he let them in.
He had a medical marijuana license and a note from his doctor that said he could possess more than the legal amount of weed.
At the time, anyone with a medical marijuana license was required to grow the plant at home. Police found much more than the legal amount, and Ficano was charged with two felonies: possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell and possession of marijuana.
Now, at 65, Ficano is expected to face a jury on the 15th floor of the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas on those charges starting Tuesday.
Since he was arrested, Nevada lawmakers have legalized pot dispensaries that would help prevent a situation like the one Ficano found himself in.
Euphoria Wellness, the state’s first medical marijuana store, could open as soon as Thursday at 7780 S. Jones Blvd., the same day Ficano’s defense attorney expects closing arguments in the trial.
“I can’t believe they’re still prosecuting him,” said Joe Lamarca, co-owner of the dispensary. “There’s no point to it.”
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who authored legislation that allowed dispensaries, said lawmakers wanted to clean up the old statute when they pushed for medical pot shops.
“These people had to take their lives in their own hands,” Segerblom said. “We needed to get a process where people can buy medical marijuana.”
Former District Judge James Bixler, who retired in January, was initially assigned to hear Ficano’s case but removed himself because he invested in the pot business and formed Greenleaf Dispensaries Inc.
“That to me is just outrageous,” said Ficano’s lawyer, Dustin Marcello. “I’m very confident that the jury will see he has an affirmative defense to the charges.”
The lawyer pointed to “a very convoluted, confusing legal framework” in Nevada.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that marijuana be declassified as a Schedule 1 drug, and U.S. senators proposed a bill to change that federal policy and facilitate marijuana research.
Some state legislators, including Segerblom, even think marijuana should be legalized for recreational use. Nevada voters are expected to decide a ballot question next year that could do just that.
“We’re trying,” Segerblom said. “We’re really trying.”
A KNOCK FROM POLICE
So with the swaying perceptions of marijuana, how is a jury going to see Ficano’s case? That may be impossible to predict, but they’re required to follow the law the judge gives them.
Last week, District Judge Susan Johnson, who’s presiding over the case, told Ficano’s lawyer he could not try to pick jurors who might be sympathetic.
For 36 years, Ficano ran a furniture repair business. He developed arthritis and has scoliosis. Ficano also used pot to alleviate the “debilitating effects of pain from a previous car accident,” Marcello wrote in a motion to dismiss the case.
After the crash, Ficano was prescribed painkillers and became addicted. Medical marijuana helped him kick that addiction.
Until October 2012, he had no criminal record.
That’s when Metro police performed a “knock and talk” at Ficano’s residence. Through a wrought-iron gate, they could see marijuana plants growing in his backyard. The officers asked if they could take a look around.
Prosecutor Lindsey Moors has said that neighbors called police concerned about the plants in Ficano’s yard.
Ficano told police he had a note from his doctor, Ivan Goldsmith, that would allow him to possess 29 plants and 2 to 4 pounds of finished marijuana. The doctor had prescribed far less pot than cops found at his residence, according to the prosecutor.
An officer told him that the law at the time allowed only three mature plants, four immature plants and up to an ounce of finished marijuana.
Ficano escorted the police to his backyard, where plants were growing and stalks of marijuana were hung upside- down, according to the police report.
Police got a warrant to search the rest of the house and found 68 plants growing in the ground and in black plastic containers.
Officers found 18 mason jars of pot on the bedroom floor, 50 jars of pot in a wine cooler, 40 jars in a freezer and 67 jars in a refrigerator, along with smaller amounts scattered around the house. The finished product weighed 24 pounds; the plants weighed 28 pounds.
In Nevada, possession of less than an ounce of weed without a medical marijuana card is a misdemeanor. Anything more is a felony.
Medical marijuana has been legal since 2000, but card holders were forced to grow their own pot until last year, when the law allowing dispensaries was passed. For now, card holders can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and not more than 12 marijuana plants.
The officers wanted to look inside a safe in Ficano’s bedroom, so he opened it for them. Inside, he had $51,667 in cash, 14 handguns, eight rifles and four shotguns, according to a police report. A digital scale sat in the garage. The cash, arranged in various denominations, and the guns were seized.
The cash and a digital scale pointed to evidence that Ficano sold the drug, the prosecutor said.
But the guns were neither assault rifles nor sawed-off shotguns; they were antique lever action rifles, collectible pistol sets and historical muskets, Ficano’s lawyer argued.
The money was a mix of antique currency, bills from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s and a career’s worth of saved cash Ficano had pulled out of his bank account during the recession, Marcello said. Some of the pot had been stored in the jars so long that it had grown moldy. Most of the plants were either male or too immature to produce buds.
Ficano said his marijuana is used only for medicinal purposes.
When he obtained his medical marijuana card through the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, he was given no instructions on how to grow the plant and stay under medical use restrictions.
“He had to figure it out on his own,” Marcello said. “He had to figure it out without any help from the county or state or any agencies. It’s just a shame that we have to go through with this.”