Nevada grapples with marijuana issue
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) – Nevadans voted overwhelmingly last year to approve using marijuana for medical purposes. Now the state’s lawmakers – however reluctant – must rehash the issue to implement the voters’ will.
That some legislators are less than enthusiastic isn’t surprising: Despite the medical marijuana vote, Nevada still has some of the nation’s harshest criminal penalties for drug use and possession.
Also, marijuana use remains a federal law violation. The Justice Department has gone to court to challenge medical marijuana distribution programs in other states.
”This ballot measure was strictly emotionalism and an entire waste of time,” Dr. Arnold Wax, a Las Vegas oncologist, said after the measure passed. ”It’s an issue of state’s rights and federalism. The federal government has shut down efforts to prescribe it in other states, it will do the same thing here.”
The ballot initiative approved by nearly two of every three voters allows use of marijuana by cancer, AIDS, glaucoma victims and others with painful and potentially terminal illnesses. The amendment to the Nevada Constitution first won voter approval in 1998 and Question 9 passed a second time last November.
The 2-to-1 voter mandate is no problem for Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas. She says Nevada should set up a state registry of marijuana users similar to a program operated by state health officials in Oregon.
Unlike Oregon, which lets authorized users grow marijuana plants, she wants the state to provide marijuana, possibly through a state-run farm.
Giunchigliani says the medical marijuana program could be worked into her proposal to ease Nevada’s harsh penalties. Currently simple possession can still be punished as a felony.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Mark James, R-Las Vegas, also says there’s no reason to interfere with the voters’ mandate that the Legislature set up a method of distributing medical marijuana.
”We will consider making an appropriate exemption to implement the medical marijuana law,” James said. ”It wouldn’t be right to make criminals out of people who are trying to implement the medical marijuana law.”
Others, such as Sen. Ann O’Connell, R-Las Vegas, are apprehensive.
”The will of the people is an extremely important thing to me,” O’Connell said. ”I would definitely be supportive of what they voted on, but I would like to know what they thought they were voting on.”
O’Connell said she’s concerned about amounts of marijuana that users can take, whether they can drive, or use marijuana in public. She also wonders whether people with records of drug abuse will be allowed into the registry.
One way to resolve a looming legislative impasse would be to set up a marijuana ”research program” overseen by the University of Nevada Medical School – a concept suggested by a task force of doctors and pharmacists.
Under the plan, marijuana could grown on a few acres of university farmland and given to patients. Doctors would track whether the marijuana helped ease their pain, nausea or other symptoms.
Keith Macdonald, executive secretary of the state Board of Pharmacy and a task force leader, said the physician-run university research program might be approved by federal authorities.
Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa agrees – and has warned that legislators are asking for trouble if they establish a distribution program without federal consent.
But Dan Geary, a leader of Nevadans for Medical Rights which pushed the marijuana issue onto the ballot, contends the research program would violate voters’ wishes.
”The people of Nevada didn’t vote for a research project,” he said. ”They voted for a straightforward implementation of a system to register patients who, with advice and consent of a physician, would be able to use marijuana under certain circumstances.” However, Geary said marijuana’s potency varies from plant to plant, and while he’d accept a grow-your-own policy, he thinks the state should do more to establish the best possible system.
Geary added that most people who would qualify for medical marijuana are terminally ill, and ”don’t have time to play farmer.”
”The best way to ensure the security of marijuana availability is to have the state maintain and license a facility for its cultivation,” he said.
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