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Las Vegas, Clark County take step toward allowing pot dispensaries

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 | 6:30 p.m.

The Clark County Commission and Las Vegas City Council both directed their respective staffs today to begin crafting licensing and zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries, a major step for the nascent industry set to begin operating later this year.

But the stark contrast in the tone of the two boards during their discussions showed that allowing medical marijuana still faces opposition from some elected officials and could lead to dispensaries being legal in some parts of the valley but not others.

County commissioners seemed to accept the impending arrival of medical marijuana dispensaries, pushing staff to craft a new zoning ordinance that can be introduced next month.

Medical marijuana was legalized in a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2000, but no formal system to distribute the drug to patients was established until the 2013 legislative session.

Now that dispensaries have been legalized, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services is developing regulations and a process to award a limited number of dispensary licenses. A total of 40 licenses will be granted to cities in Clark County, with no municipality receiving more than 10.

Although the state is responsible for developing dispensary regulations, local governments will still set zoning and licensing rules, which affect where businesses can be located and how they can operate.

Commissioners said Wednesday they want the county’s dispensary regulations in place before the state begins accepting applications for licenses, which is expected to happen sometime this summer. If the ordinance presented next month proceeds smoothly, the county could have regulations in place by the end of March.

In Las Vegas, the city council also directed staff to begin crafting their own regulations, but several members were hesitant about allowing medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits.

“It seems like we’ve been kind of tiptoeing around this whole discussion of whether we should have marijuana in the city of Las Vegas,” said Councilman Stavros Anthony. “I’ve been doing a lot of research on this for the last six months. I will not support a medical marijuana program in the city of Las Vegas.”

Anthony pointed to marijuana still being illegal on the federal level and cited several research studies about negative side effects of using the drug that questioned its medicinal purpose.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian also expressed skepticism about the city authorizing medical marijuana dispensaries to open in Las Vegas while federal law still outlaws the industry.

The city passed a moratorium last year that expires March 17 banning any licensing applications for dispensaries to give council more time to study the issue.

Ultimately, the fear of losing ground to the county and other local municipalities in the licensing process pushed the council to direct staff to begin drafting regulations for Las Vegas in a 5-2 vote, with Anthony and Tarkanian in opposition. No timeline has been set for when the regulations will be introduced.

The loss of the city’s potential allotment of 10 dispensary licenses also worried the council. Councilman Steve Ross said that if Las Vegas doesn’t welcome dispensaries, its neighbors might and the city would lose the potential new businesses.

“If we move forward we still have the opportunity to say, ‘No this isn’t what we want to do,’” Councilman Steve Ross said. “I think it’s significant at today’s meeting that we keep the ball moving in the right direction, or at least forward, whether people think that’s the wrong direction or the right direction ... I think we as the city need to be in control of our own destiny.”

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