Nevadans Have Embraced Medical Marijuana But Not Legalization

LAS VEGAS -- Nevada voters eagerly amended the state's constitution in 2000 to legalize medical marijuana but repeated attempts by advocates to approve possession and use of the leafy substance for all adults statewide have failed.

The state's initial foray into medical marijuana occurred in 1998, when Nevadans for Medical Rights placed Question 9 on that year's November general election ballot. The money to finance the group's campaign came from Americans for Medical Rights of Santa Monica, Calif., a major backer in the successful 1996 effort to make California the first state to approve marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Despite opposition from the Nevada Attorney General's Office and Nevada State Medical Association, 58.7 percent of the electorate gave initial approval in 1998 to the proposed constitutional amendment. Because Nevada constitutional amendments must be approved in two successive elections to become law, voters did just that in 2000 by approving Question 9 again, this time with 65.4 percent of the vote.

Nevada and Colorado, which approved medical marijuana at the same time, joined six other states on that list. Marijuana for medicinal purposes is now legal in 20 states plus Washington, D.C.

The Nevada law that took effect in October 2001 established a registration system providing that with a physician's approval, patients or their registered caregivers could possess marijuana for patient ailments such as severe pain, muscle spasms, AIDS, cancer or glaucoma.

The law restricts possession to one ounce of usable marijuana, three mature plants and four immature plants. An exception allows those amounts to be exceeded if the patient can prove "by a preponderance of the evidence that the greater amount is medically necessary as determined by the person's attending physician to mitigate the symptoms or effects of the person's chronic or debilitating medical condition."

The law as originally written also had gaping omissions. It didn't allow patients or their caregivers to buy seeds to grow plants. Also banned were marijuana dispensaries, even though they were legal in California. That means patients have no legal way to access marijuana if they have difficulty growing their own plants.

But the Nevada Legislature, which worked out details of the law, simply didn't want to get involved in the cultivation and distribution aspects of marijuana, according to those who backed Question 9.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced in October 2009 that federal prosecutors wouldn't pursue individuals who were abiding by state medical marijuana laws, even though marijuana possession remained illegal under U.S. law.

Numerous entrepreneurs subsequently opened marijuana dispensaries in Southern Nevada, only to be raided beginning in 2010 by law enforcement authorities who alleged the businesses violated the law.

Dispensary operators thought they scored a major victory when then-Clark County District Judge Donald Mosley in March 2012 declared Nevada's ban against marijuana dispensaries as unconstitutional. The ruling meant that a case was thrown out involving the operators of Sin City Co-op, which distributed pot to medical marijuana patients in exchange for donations.

Law enforcement authorities argued, though, that the transactions amounted to unlawful sales. The case was appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in September but hasn't issued a decision.

Federal prosecutors can claim a victory of their own. Michael Minh Quang Dinh of Garden Grove, Calif., one of six individuals charged in 2013 with operating an illegal dispensary at 6985 W. Sahara Ave., signed a guilty plea in December on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and its active agent, tetrahydrocannabinol.

Dinh is scheduled to be sentenced April 7. The trial of five others allegedly connected to the shuttered Alternative Solutions Marijuana Dispensary is scheduled for Feb. 10 in federal court in Las Vegas.

The Legislature last year sought to fix perceived confusion over the medical marijuana law by approving Senate Bill 374, which established a framework for legal dispensaries in Nevada. But local governments that have been tasked with implementing the law are still ironing out the details, meaning the actual opening dates for legal dispensaries remain unknown.

Effective April 1, the new law also increases the amount of pot that a patient or caregiver can possess to two and one-half ounces of usable marijuana in any 14-day period, 12 marijuana plants and a maximum allowable quantity of edible marijuana products as established in a regulation by the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

Legalizing marijuana in Nevada for all adults is a completely different story.

Nevada could have been the first state to legalize marijuana possession for all adults when voters went to the polls in 2002, but the proposed constitutional amendment failed by a margin of 60.9 percent to 39.1 percent.

The initiative, which would have allowed individuals 21 and older to possess up to three ounces of pot, was backed by the Marijuana Policy Project of Washington, D.C. The main financial backer of the pro-marijuana lobby group was the late billionaire Peter Lewis, former head of the Progressive Corp. insurance company who died in November at age 80. Under his guidance, the Marijuana Policy Project poured millions of dollars into Nevada over the next several years in a failed effort to legalize pot. The most prominent local politician who supported the measure was then-Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, who now sits on the Clark County Commission.

The 2002 measure faced stiff opposition from law enforcement agencies and an anti-drunken driving group who called themselves Nevadans Against Legalizing Marijuana. They argued that legalization would lead to more crime and drug dependency.

One incident that hurt the measure was the highly publicized August 2002 death of Las Vegas Sun vice president and columnist Sandy Thompson, who was killed by another motorist while driving to work on the Las Vegas Beltway. The other driver, John Simbrat, pleaded guilty to causing her death while under the influence of marijuana and received a five- to 15-year prison sentence.

The Marijuana Policy Project took another swing at legalization in 2006 by supporting a ballot measure under the guise of the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana that would have established pot dispensaries. Adults also would have been able to possess up to one ounce. The measure would have increased the penalties for causing death or substantial bodily harm while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But that proposal failed 56 percent to 44 percent.

Another group called Nevadans For Sensible Marijuana Laws registered with the state in 2009 as a ballot advocacy group and received donations from the Marijuana Policy Project. But the group subsequently failed to gather enough signatures in 2010 to have the Legislature in 2011 consider marijuana legalization.

Ultimately, Colorado and Washington in November 2012 became the first states to legalize marijuana possession for all adults.

Assemblymen Joseph Hogan and Andrew Martin, both Las Vegas Democrats, sponsored Assembly Bill 402 last year in yet another attempt to legalize pot possession for adults. Hogan told the Assembly Judiciary Committee in April:

"The prohibition against the use of marijuana failed and created a black market that hangs like a cancer alongside our underfunded education system for no other reason than a policy of villainous misinformation. In Nevada, we tax gaming, we tax tobacco, and we tax alcohol; each of those has harmful effects that exist alongside their use. Marijuana in many ways pales to the problems of alcohol addiction, tobacco addiction, or the addiction to gambling.

"Thus we propose to establish a system in which a product grown in Nevada, processed in Nevada, and sold in Nevada for personal use will be taxed by Nevada and used to help fund education for the children of Nevada."

Martin testified that the tax revenue collected from the legal sale of marijuana -- a tax applied to growers and retailers -- could raise an estimated $470 million to $500 million annually. He also argued that legalization could have a positive impact on Nevada's tourist-based economy.

"You can also make the argument that there is going to be an expansion of the tourist industry because people are going to come to seek out Nevada. Perhaps the Strip casinos will have a new feature to offer...It is not out of the realm of possibility that the casinos could set up age-appropriate, casino-oriented, consumer marketing-friendly shops. It would be very controlled. This is not about a wild, rampant situation.

"Everybody likes to laugh when people smoke marijuana; they get hungry. This will affect our restaurant industry. There will be more sales tax revenue. You are also talking about job expansion."

Those arguments failed to convince their colleagues, though, and the bill never got out of committee.







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