Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Evolution on marijuana alters focus for crime fighters

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Mikayla Whitmore

Steven Wolfson inside his office at the Regional Justice Center in Downtown Las Vegas on September 1, 2017.

Since 2015, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has overseen a county with some form of legalized marijuana. And recently the plant has catapulted his office into the national spotlight.

As regulations to launch Nevada’s medical marijuana industry were hammered out in the 2013 Legislature and enacted in 2015, recreational pot, passed in last year’s Ballot Question 2 and launched this year, has brought as many as 300,000 new marijuana customers to the state since legal sales started July 1, officials said.

Recreational marijuana’s progression has meant a significant change in policy for the DA’s office. After announcing in November that his office would no longer prosecute those charged with possession or use of less than one ounce of marijuana flower or one-eighth the THC equivalent of edibles and concentrates, Wolfson said the number of marijuana crimes his office prosecutes is shrinking.

But the types of offenses are evolving, he added, into business scams, robberies and larger-scale possession crimes.

“With recreational marijuana being so new still, I expect more,” he said.

The top prosecutor in Nevada’s largest county sat down with The Sunday recently to discuss his latest marijuana case, how the DA’s office is interpreting new pot laws and how users can stay out of court.

With the way the law is written — allowing 43 million annual tourists to use pot only in private residences, not in casinos, hotels or public places — is your office exercising any leniency on prosecuting potential crimes stemming from where these people are using the plant?

I can’t imagine if someone lights up a joint in a hotel room that we’re going to try and give them a jail sentence. The first thing that’s going to happen is probably a security guard is going to smell marijuana or find someone smoking it. Is the security guard going to respond and do something? Yes. Is the security guard going to seize marijuana? Yes. Are they going to cite and arrest the person? Maybe. Each venue has its own internal policies. But I’d have the feeling they’re going to seize the marijuana and maybe trespass the person.

What if that tourist has more than the legal limit of marijuana or is throwing a party with pot in a hotel room?

We only get cases where law enforcement refers it to us. So if they in their own policy do away with a case or handle it themselves, we’ll never see it.

Let’s say there’s a guy smoking a joint in a hotel room and security goes inside to find an ounce and a half of marijuana. That’s over the legal limit. Are they going to arrest the person? Perhaps. Are they going to send it over to us for prosecution? Probably. Then my office would run a background check on this person, because we run background checks on every single person we prosecute. People with criminal records are treated differently than people with no records. A guy with four felonies is going to be treated differently than the 22-year-old college student from Stanford who came to celebrate graduation from college.

So the four-time felon would be paid more attention.

Yeah, and we do that with any case, not just marijuana. They’d probably be charged but like so many of the other marijuana cases, we resolve them because there has been a change in the morals of our community. Our culture has decided that the ingestion of marijuana should be tolerated. So unless someone is flagrantly violating the law and throwing it in our face, we’re going to recognize all of the things that should be recognized and deal accordingly.

Your office is prosecuting a case involving former Las Vegas attorney Easton Harris, who is on the run and is charged with defrauding investors of $167,000 in a fake marijuana cultivation facility investment scam. Why is this case significant to the DA’s office?

Harris and another defendant, Jonathan Peirsol, are charged with four Category B felonies. What makes this case a little bit more important to us is that Harris is a lawyer, and lawyers have reputations for sometimes not being as honest as we’d like them to be. But lawyers are human beings, just like anybody else.

What this lawyer did in particular was, he basically pulled a scam. He said “I’ve got a business opportunity for you folks. And if you invest in this business, you’re going to get returns.” And I think most people want to believe they can trust a lawyer. So he stole $167,000 from two people because he duped them, and it hurts the profession; it hurts everybody involved that ever deals with lawyers. So I think that’s what brought this case to a higher profile.

Editor’s note: Chris Peterson, an attorney in the Clark County public defender’s office, argued the public should reserve judgment on Harris’ case before he’s tried. Peterson, who represented Harris during an initial hearing June 6 before Harris went missing, challenged Wolfson’s office to comb through financial records to ensure the allegations are “legitimate.”

“The state has to pour through these records, and they haven’t done that yet,” Peterson said. “With a lot of financial cases, there are many records to pour through.

“Until that happens, Mr. Harris is presumed to be innocent, and it’s not appropriate for the DA’s office to make those allegations.”

Request for comment from Harris’ former assistant at Rock N’ Roll Legal, Michael Garth, went unreturned. Private attorneys representing the two people listed in the indictment against Harris declined comment.

With the legalization this year of marijuana and sales on July 1, has your office seen a lot of marijuana scamming and investment crimes?

This is the first one I’m aware of, but I expect others. That was part of this guy’s ploy. Nevada just legalized recreational marijuana, so it’s going to be a boom industry, and other people should get in now. That’s part of the allure that brought these people to part with their money.

This is the first one to my knowledge of a marijuana business fraud. With recreational marijuana being so new still, I expect more.

What other crimes have you seen or are you expecting?

More robberies, because these are cash businesses. Other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have experienced that kind of thing with cash. Where there’s cash, there’s opportunity for thieves.

Any advice you’d have for people to avoid ending up against your office in court?

Don’t drive while impaired. If people want to ingest marijuana in the privacy of their own home, I’ve got no problem with that. Our voters have spoken, they said make legalized marijuana available to people and I accept that. What I don’t accept is people who smoke or ingest marijuana and then go driving when they’re impaired.

Marijuana comes in different strengths, different qualities; edibles affect your body differently than smoking. But there are increases in motor vehicle accidents — and specifically fatalities — while people have been ingesting marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington. I don’t want people getting hurt on our roadways because of marijuana users.

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