The Slow Roll of Medical Marijuana

Bureaucracy and Mother Nature keep product out of dispensaries

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

It’s been 15 years since medical marijuana was legalized in Nevada and about 15 months since the state began the process of issuing licenses to marijuana cultivators, production facilities and dispensaries. Cannabis-related businesses hired staff and prepared facilities, only to sit shuttered for months. Patients shelled out hundreds of dollars for medical cards that expired before they could purchase a gram of product.

Even as Las Vegas’ first dispensary, Euphoria Wellness, opened its doors this week, the combination of slow-moving government bureaucracy and the can’t-be-rushed processes of Mother Nature have created more than a few bumps along the road. As dozens of businesses wait for their turn, thousands of patients are getting impatient. “That’s the sad thing,” says State Senator Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas. “People need medicine and deserve it, but they can’t get it.”

One of the bureaucratic slowdowns is that inspections and approvals must be done by multiple jurisdictions—state, city and county. “Our inspections are fairly quick, depending on the situation and what we’re looking at,” says Steve Gilbert, manager of the State Medical Marijuana Program, who says most inspections are completed in a day or two. “We write up our reports and, depending on what we find or what they need to fix, that may delay it.” But, he adds, “We are inspecting quite a few [facilities]. I’m anticipating that very, very soon more than one should be open.”

One dispensary that is trying to move forward is Las Vegas Releaf, which recently held a job fair to staff their facility. Launch manager Michael Hayford says, “Between online HR tools and a job fair, we saw more than 1,000 applications come in. … We extended offers to 30 to 40 people.” As for the facility itself, “We completed construction and got our certificate of occupancy a couple of weeks back. Right now we’re going through state inspections, which are required before we can be issued a certificate. Then we have the city coming.” He continues, “If it goes well, [then] the City Council would then approve us to open. At that point, we’re waiting on product availability.”

Ah, yes, product availability, the other hitch in the system. Dispensaries may be ready to open their doors, but cultivation facilities are lagging behind. For one, they had to wait until July for the state to designate acceptable levels of pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals. Gilbert points out that some delays are out of his hands. “There’s a growing cycle for the product. The timing of being able to produce a harvest may mean the dispensaries are waiting so they can get a harvest tested.”

Of course, the government could accelerate matters by allowing dispensaries to buy from those who are already growing, but regulations prohibit it. “The county said a dispensary can’t buy it from a home grower; they have to buy it from a grower, so the grower has to buy it from the home grower and sell it to the dispensary,” Segerblom explains. And that’s not the only hurdle to jump. “I’ve heard that if you want to buy marijuana from somebody growing in the county, that grower has to pay $20,000 to the city to sell it in the city,” he says. “And if they grew it in the city, it would only cost $5,000 for the license. … I think some local jurisdictions got a little greedy.”

Accusations of jurisdictional greed are leveled much more strongly in a class-action suit recently filed against the state on behalf of medical marijuana cardholders. “People are charged to buy these cards, they’re only good for one year and they have to keep repaying and repaying and they’re getting nothing for it, “ says Jacob Hafter, the lawyer representing the suit. “Enough is enough.”

Those whose cards are still valid may finally have some recourse, but there’s another part of the case that could upend Nevada’s entire medical marijuana system: It also asserts that taxation and registration violates the constitutional rights of patients. “On one hand it’s medical, so we want testing and labeling. On the other hand it’s an illegal drug, so we need a registry, we need to know who’s using it,” Hafter says. “There’s no other medical treatment that we have this obligation to jump through these hoops. … If you have a nosebleed that won’t stop, one of the things they use is medical-grade cocaine. And you don’t have to get on a registry or pay the state a fee for that.”

But right now, everyone just wants to see dispensaries open and patients served. And Segerblom—who sponsored the 2013 legislation that set up Nevada’s dispensary system—is optimistic that it won’t be much longer. “It’s been two years, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”


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