Local governments have lost one of their excuses for not moving ahead with marijuana dispensaries—the state regulations many of them have been waiting for have been delivered to the Nevada Legislature for approval.
But that step forward is being accompanied by steps back all over the state. It appears that patients in rural counties will be left with no assistance from their local governments. Most are simply ignoring the new state law allowing—but not requiring—local governments to set up dispensaries for marijuana.
In numerous communities, governing bodies have voted for “moratoriums”—doing nothing for the time being. In others, like North Las Vegas, local governments have simply ignored the matter.
In Colorado, there are news reports about arrivals of families who have left their home states—Nevada among them—to get to the availability of marijuana for family members. Dravet Syndrome, an unusual and degenerative form of epilepsy that occasionally kills, is particularly drawing arrivals. In one case, a 5-year-old named Charlotte Figi went from 300 seizures a week to none. KTNV in Las Vegas sent a news crew to Denver to report on the emigration: “Hundreds of families are moving to Colorado from different states, including Nevada, to get medical marijuana. The irony? They should be able to get it in Nevada, because it’s legal, but with no place to buy it, Nevadans are left in limbo.”
The Nevada dispensary law was enacted by the legislature last year after the lawmakers had left patients hanging for more than a decade. State voters approved use of marijuana as medicine in 2000, but not until 2013 did legislators allow patients any way of obtaining the plant except grow-your-own.
Clark County Sen. Tick Segerblom, who sponsored the new law, said last week, “I think local governments are coming around slowly but surely. Not much movement by smaller counties, although Nye County has taken some action.”
The Nevada Legislature put the dispensary program in the hands of the state Public and Behavioral Health Division, formerly the State Health Division. On Feb. 6, the Interim Finance Committee—a panel that appropriates state money when the full legislature is out of session—approved $364,000 to staff the program. One supervisor and six inspectors will be hired by the state of Nevada by March to handle scrutiny of medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada. (As it happens, that is exactly the size of force installed by the federal government in Nevada in 1919 to enforce alcohol prohibition.)
If towns and cities do not avail themselves of their dispensaries—the state law provides for up to 66 dispensaries—counties can assume the unused number. Faced with Clark County taking over the Las Vegas allotment of dispensaries, members of the Las Vegas City Council softened their approach to the issue. On a 5-2 vote, the council directed city staff to draw up a plan for dispensaries in the city.
With the Washoe County Commission hovering nearby, city councils in Reno and Sparks are moving ahead, though not with any great enthusiasm. Sparks, like some other towns, is considering using zoning to restrict the location of dispensaries. Reno is stumbling over the lack of a lawyer for counsel.
A State Bar of Nevada committee will meet next week on whether to amend ethics rules to allow public counsel like district attorneys and city attorneys to advise their local governing bodies on how to draft language on the dispensaries. Though most public counsel so far have had no difficulty doing so, Reno City Attorney John Kadlic said a state bar rule prevents him from instructing clients how to break the law. Marijuana use for any purpose remains illegal under federal law.
Supporters of medical marijuana enjoyed a publicity bonus when Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, a former Republican state chair, switched sides on the issue after a member of his family benefited from the use of therapeutic marijuana.
Two areas on the cusp of urban and rural counties have taken some lethargic steps. In Nye County in November, the County Commission instructed its staffers to draft local rules for a dispensary. According to Pahrump Valley Times reporter Mark Waite, the staff included a clause outlawing medical marijuana dispensaries.
“The Pahrump Regional Planning Commission recommended striking that clause, permitting the one dispensary Nye County will be permitted to have under the state law,” Waite said in an email message. “The county bill would allow cultivation facilities, but there is a buffer zone prohibiting them within 1,500 feet of schools, churches, day care and 300 feet away from public facilities and residences. A medical marijuana advocate noted the county code doesn’t allow agriculture in an industrial or commercial zone, where these establishments would be located.”
That issue is still to be settled. Nye County has a reputation for inviting any economic activity it can get, such as the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. But a plan underway for a “Cannabis Expo” in Pahrump to explain the medicinal value of the plant to local residents has generated controversy. Many people who work in Las Vegas or other Clark County communities live in Pahrump.
In Carson City, meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors in January voted not to decide anything for 180 days, though it can take up the issue at any time. District Attorney Neil Rombardo told the supervisors the state regulations were not due until April 1. In Carson City, competition from a county government is not a concern—Carson is a city/county mix jurisdiction. But small counties more distant from the two urban areas are studiously avoiding dealing with the issue. In at least two counties—Lyon and Nye—sheriffs have expressed their opposition.
Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, who as a lawyer is representing a prospective dispensary operator, said patients in the small counties have an alternative, but not an easy one.
“Without the luxury of having the statute in front of me, I believe those in jurisdictions choosing not to participate will be permitted in growing their own cannabis if they live greater than 25 miles from [the] nearest legal dispensary,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that some patients will be saddled with this burden.”
A year from now, state legislators will take a look at changes in the law after they see what happens with local handling. Some lawmakers believed all along that the program should have been assigned to health agencies.