With the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries 13 weeks away, there’s a new obstacle—political inertia from anxious local politicians.
Some local governments, who must implement the law enacted by the Nevada Legislature, are taking their time or ignoring the undertaking. Some of them are linking their lassitude to the lack of state regulations, which must be put in place before dispensaries open but are not needed before local governments get procedures in place for the April 1 start date.
“We knew the state regulations would take time, so I’m satisfied with the state’s progress,” said Sen. Tick Segerblom of Clark County, sponsor of the marijuana legislation. “What I hadn’t counted on was the reluctance of the local jurisdictions to jump on board. Most claim they are waiting to see the state’s regulations. For this to go live on April 1 the local governments will have to step up their pace.”
Hearings have been held around the state by state officials as they drafted the regulations, needed to implement the law. Members of some municipal governing boards, who serve part time, are taking their cue from their staff members. Others are hostile to the notion of the dispensaries.
“Everyone is waiting for some state regs to come out and there was a hearing last week on the draft regs that I understand was well attended by many a lobbyist in addition to others,” said Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus.
Theoretically, the role of local governments is merely administrative—creating the procedures for carrying out the new state law— because the policy change on marijuana has already been made by the state.
Segerblom said local government officials are being pressured by their constituents.
“I know a lot of the potential applicants are starting to lobby them, and many are prominent Nevadans, so I remain optimistic,” he said, adding that he believes the public will be angered if dispensaries are blocked at this late date.
The problem is particularly acute in Nevada’s small counties, where few or no steps have been taken to deal with the task, and in some cases officials have tried to block them. In Lyon County, Sheriff Allen Veil sought a county ordinance banning the dispensaries instead of implementing the law.
“Where there’s marijuana, organized crime has a finger in it, if it’s not controlled by them,” Veil said. “The potential is great for abuse and money laundering and there’s absolutely no reason Lyon County should want to be a part of that.”
Segerblom noted that Lyon County has legal prostitution, which has a similar reputation, under the state’s local option law that allows the small counties to approve brothels.
What is happening in Nevada’s small counties echoes what it happening in Colorado, where outright legalization of marijuana under state law is unfolding. A number of small communities like Greeley are banning marijuana, creating a situation akin to states that have “wet” and “dry” counties in terms of alcohol sales. But it becomes more complicated at the city level. For instance, while Greeley has prohibited marijuana sales, the smaller, immediately adjacent town of Garden City is allowing sales—a repetition of the towns’ historic roles: Garden City was founded in part to provide saloons for dry Greeley.
One of the factors in the Nevada situation is that if cities do not implement their allowable number of dispensaries, the counties can add those to their own allowances—and so far, the two urban counties seem to be preparing to do just that.
“Another interesting point is that if the cities in Washoe and Clark don’t want them, the counties can take their share,” Segerblom said. “So in Clark County, for example, I anticipate that Clark County will be eligible for at least 30 and possibly 40 dispensaries instead of the 10 we originally envisioned.”
The state law provides for 50 dispensaries statewide, with 10 in Washoe County and about one each in the small counties, though numbers could shift with population changes.
In Southern Nevada, the Las Vegas City Council in September approved a six-month “moratorium” on medical marijuana businesses, purportedly because the state regulations were not ready, and on Jan. 7 the Henderson City Council will vote on also imposing a six-month moratorium, which would push the issue past the start date.
Meanwhile, the Clark County Commission—Las Vegas and Henderson are both inside Clark—is not waiting on the cities or the state regulations. They are pushing ahead with all the administrative details like designing application forms that will need to be ready on April 1.
“Clark County is proceeding towards implementing the law,” said Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who as a state legislator sponsored measures to lift the restrictions on marijuana. “Our business license staff have toured a dispensary, been in regular talks with Marla [Marla McDade Williams of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services] and the state and we have an implementation timeline. It’s disappointing to hear that our sister cities have chosen moratoriums and several council members have supposedly said they won’t implement the law. It’s about getting people their medicine in a safe, sane way.”
In Reno, a 1,300-word proposed ordinance covering dispensaries has been posted online, but there is resistance within the council to doing anything. Councilmember Dwight Dortch has expressed concern about whether the city would be at risk legally by facilitating an activity that is still illegal under federal law.
So far, action by the Reno council has been delayed by “stay ordinances,” the purpose of which has apparently not been well explained.
“Staff kept bringing forth these stay ordinances which I kept opposing [because of] not sure what a stay is and it was not defined and at best it was not necessary to do anything at all,” Brekhus said in an email message.
In the absence of a well defined city policy, the Washoe County Commission is moving ahead, with only one commissioner—David Humke—expressing some reservations, though not opposing dispensaries outright.
Washoe County Commissioner Kitty Jung said commissioners have instructed staff to get the county’s ducks in a row administratively in preparation for the April start date.
“We’ve instructed staff to continue to do their due diligence,” she said, noting that marijuana sales—the only prescription drug in the state saddled with a sales tax— will generate proceeds that will go to schools.
Asked if there’s an appetite among the county commissioners to pick up the city’s allocation of dispensaries if the city decides not to cooperate with the state law, Jung said, “I can’t say right now. We’ve never discussed it.” But she said since the newly constituted post-2012 election commission took office, “This new commission has surprised me right and left.” She said the new commissioners have been supportive of parks, libraries and other county initiatives that the previous commission opposed.
Jung said in the end, she believes the Reno council will go ahead with dispensaries.
Segerblom said, “I hope Reno will come on board.”