Published Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | 1:12 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | 8:10 p.m.
A push to increase patient access to medical marijuana took a step forward today as two local governments voted to allow dispensaries and related businesses in their jurisdictions.
In Clark County, commissioners approved land-use and licensing regulations that clear the way for prospective medical marijuana entrepreneurs to begin filing applications for special-use permits next month.
A few hours earlier, the Las Vegas City Council took a stand on medical marijuana, voting to allowing dispensaries and directing staff to bring back final regulations for a vote in May or June.
The votes mark definitive progress for medical marijuana advocates, who have been working to increase patient access to the drug since it was legalized in the state constitution more than a decade ago.
Although medical marijuana was approved by voters, no system to legally distribute it was established until the 2013 Legislature passed a bill allowing for a network of cultivation facilities, testing labs and dispensaries.
Clark County is the first local government in Southern Nevada to pass regulations that govern how and where medical marijuana businesses can locate.
“This is a monumental step I think that the county took,” commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said. “We tried to get everything right but I think that time is going to tell what we got right and what we got wrong, what adjustments and tweaks are going to have to be made in the future.”
Although all commissioners supported medical marijuana, Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly voted against the ordinance because of concerns about what they felt were some overly restrictive provisions of the law.
Giunchigliani took issue with two specific portions of the ordinance — one requiring cultivation facilities, which are already limited to industrially zoned areas, to be at least 660 feet from homes, which severely limits the number of suitable locations, she said.
The other requires that dispensaries acquire their product from cultivation facilities in Clark County unless there’s a shortage or the drug can’t be acquired at a fair market value. Giunchigliani said this provision could negatively impact patients who rely on highly specialized strains of cannabis used to treat seizures and other illnesses.
Commissioners did remove a provision requiring dispensaries to be located at least 330 feet from homes, reasoning that any dispensaries too close to a residential area can be rejected during the special use permit application process.
The commissioners’ approval means business owners will have to scramble to lock down sites for dispensaries and cultivation facilities because of a narrow application window that starts April 16 and ends May 2.
Prospective owners will have to pass a background check and prove locations meet zoning standards, among other requirements.
Once applications are received, each one will be reviewed before making their way before county commissioners, who will hold a public meeting June 5 to award the special-use permits.
Although there’s no limit in the state law on the number of production and cultivation facilities, unincorporated Clark County is only allowed 10 dispensary licenses, meaning commissioners will have to wade through dozens of applicants to pick the best proposals.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, is a few steps behind the county. But today’s decision by the council means the city will likely become the second in the valley to allow medical marijuana businesses, after licensing regulations are approved. The vote to approve medical marijuana split the council 5-2, with council members Stavros Anthony and Lois Tarkanian in opposition.
Councilman Ricki Barlow was initially hesitant about allowing medical marijuana in Las Vegas, but said he came around after visiting dispensaries in Arizona and California.
“In the beginning I had a completely different interpretation and level of understanding as to what we’re dealing with here,” Barlow said. “I have a newfound respect for how, in fact, this actually has helped a lot of patients ... I had a stereotype of who was going to be inside of the facilities, but I was gravely wrong.”
The city also approved a moratorium on accepting any medical marijuana business license applications until regulations are in place, a measure meant to prevent overeager entrepreneurs from applying early.
While Southern Nevada’s two largest local governments have moved firmly in the direction of allowing medical marijuana businesses, others have hesitated.
Boulder City passed an outright ban on dispensaries earlier this year, while Henderson approved a moratorium while city officials decide whether to welcome the industry within their jurisdiction.
This is a developing story. Check back for more.