State of Inaction: Nevada resists marijuana dispensaries


Data from Marijuana Policy Project / Visualization by Natasha Vitale
Data from Marijuana Policy Project / Graphic by Natasha Vitale

Dust blows, tumble weed rolls by, and the theme music from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” plays as two men face each other. One has cowboy boots, a hat and gun, ready to fight, and the other has long hair, is smoking a joint and holding up a peace sign.

“Cowboys versus hippies” is certainly one way to describe the battle to make medical marijuana a legal and accessible substance in the state of Nevada, although imagining a showdown out west between a gunslinger and a peacemaker doesn’t illustrate the nuances of problems that Nevada has been experiencing in making marijuana accessible to patients who need it. The divide isn’t quite as polarized in reality — medical marijuana has been legal in Nevada since 2001 — the recent problem that the 2013 legislature looked to solve was how to make it easier for patients to get it.

Legislation from the last session legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada to solve the problematic situation of how patients can obtain their medicine legally. It became a legal conundrum: medical marijuana was legal to use, but not legal to sell. Sen. Tick Segerblom (D-Las Vegas) was one of the most vocal proponents of the medical marijuana dispensaries legislation and even took a trip to Arizona to see how they have dealt with the issue.

“We’re going to hear lots of reasons why we can’t do it, we shouldn’t do it,” Segerblom said in May during a Senate vote on the bill, “But to me, if Arizona, which is the most conservative state in the country, can do it, then Nevada can do it.”

Support for the legalization of medical marijuana is at an all-time high, according to a poll Fox News conducted in May, with 9 out of 10 people (and 80 percent of Republicans polled) saying they support medical marijuana use when prescribed by a physician. A more recent poll in California, showed that 52 percent of Californians support legalizing the drug for recreational use. Yet, legislators in Nevada still put up a fight against legalizing dispensaries, with the Nevada Assembly voting 28-14 to pass the bill.

“They think this is a negative issue,” Michael McAuliffe, political outreach director for Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada, said. “[The legislators] think this will cost them votes. They’re resisting reform.”

More recent controversy over the drug has been sparked in the Nevada Supreme Court, with arguments that the original law passed in 2001 is unconstitutional. Reno City Council took on the issue of medical marijuana dispensaries applications at a Sep. 25 meeting and decided to postpone taking any applications for dispensaries.

Council members expressed interest in waiting for other cities to make the first move, not wishing for Reno to lead the way with accepting dispensary applications at the moment and voted 6-1 to wait until April when the state has finalized regulations.

“I’m inclined not to do any action and I think it’s a real evolving sort of thing in our state,” Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus said. “One city has acted one way, we’re proposing to act another way. I’d just like to wait.”

Reno is not alone in resisting action against implementing dispensaries; Las Vegas is experiencing its own fight, and on Sept. 18, they unanimously voted to put a six-month moratorium on all dispensaries.

“On one end, you have the state of Nevada that has voted for medical marijuana,” Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony said. “It’s in the constitution, the state legislature passed it, the governor signed it, and now it’s in our lap.”

Until the dispensaries are open, patients in Nevada can grow their own marijuana abiding some limits on the quantity. This solution has been limiting since not every patient is in a position to be able to grow their own medicine. While the legalization of the marijuana dispensaries has certainly been a win, there is still more to be done.

McAuliffe says one concern is that patients who do grow their own aren’t allowed to sell their excess medicine to the dispensaries, which leaves the question of what will happen to the excess medicine and ultimately, who may get their hands on it.

“They’re putting a system in place that encourages a black market,” McAuliffe said, adding that the regulations need to be more specific for people who still want to grow their own medicine. “You want to make this a safe practice.”

The potential of a black market and misuse of the drug is certainly a potential result of having the dispensaries in Nevada. One citizen testified during the Sept. 25 city council meeting about misuse of the substance and the effect on the community in Reno.

“We should take steps to ensure that underage youth are not able to access marijuana from these dispensaries,” Kevin Quint, executive director of Join Together Northern Nevada, an informational coalition on substance abuse in the community, said. “This could include compliance checks, similar to what the city of Reno already does at bars and clubs.”

There are also worries that because marijuana use is still a federal crime, that there will be a “crackdown” on states that have legalized the substance and are regulating the sale of marijuana for medical use. It isn’t entirely clear whether there will be consequences for states that have begun legalizing the drug from the federal government.

But for now, Nevada is moving slowly toward making marijuana accessible in its communities as a medical substance, and is moving away from the shadow of an “illegal substance”.

“This is a health care issue,” McAuliffe said. “This isn’t a law enforcement issue above anything else.”