Entrepreneur rolls with rejection

March 04, 2005

Frank Geary, Las Vegas Review Journal

Green bud and ginger tea, Panama Red and Perrier would be some of the combinations available at the coffee shop Pierre Werner wants to open in Las Vegas.

Hundreds of state-licensed medical marijuana patients in Southern Nevada need a place to smoke marijuana and share information about doctors and alternative therapies, information the state won't provide, Werner said.

'There is nothing in the law to prevent it,' Werner said. 'They need a place to come together and share ideas, share recipes and techniques for growing and harvesting.'

Werner's venture, however, was uprooted this week after the Clark County Commission voted 4-1 to deny him a license to open an establishment where patients could socialize and smoke the marijuana they're permitted by law to possess.

The Metropolitan Police Department, state medical marijuana regulators and the county's Business License Department all recommended the commission deny Werner a license, despite the state attorney general's office stating this week that the medical marijuana law doesn't prohibit such an endeavor.

'My familiarity is with the medical marijuana law, and there is nothing in there that would prevent someone from doing that,' Gina Session, senior deputy attorney general, said. 'As far as people congregating, medical marijuana users, there would be nothing to stop that as long as they were within the law.'

Commission Chairman Rory Reid said the commission majority voted against Werner's proposal based on its attorney's opinion that the commission doesn't have authority to license such a business.

Asked whether county administrators should develop regulations allowing bring-your-own-marijuana clubs, Reid said, 'I don't see any public outcry for that kind of establishment.'

Newly elected Commissioner Tom Collins, who voted against the denial of Werner's license without explanation at Tuesday's commission meeting, couldn't be reached.

Under Nevada law, which is based on an Oregon statute, participants can only keep an ounce of marijuana on hand. They can grow seven plants, but only three can be mature.

Jennifer Bartlett, manager of the state medical marijuana program, said 540 people statewide have been issued licenses to use marijuana. The state cannot advise people on what doctors to see or how to grow the drug, she said.

Patients are allowed to grow their own marijuana or get it from a designated caregiver also licensed by the state. To avoid any appearance that the caregivers distribute marijuana, each is permitted to provide marijuana to only one licensed patient, Bartlett said.

Session said Nevada's law was designed to allow people to smoke in their homes, behind closed doors, to discourage federal law enforcement from intervening in Nevada as it has in California.

Federal law does not grant exemptions from prosecution for possession of marijuana for medical purposes or from prosecution for attempting or conspiring to obtain marijuana for medical purposes. Federal officials have arrested cannabis clubs operators in California for distributing marijuana to licensed patients.

Federal law enforcement officials might take notice if marijuana patients were to start lighting up in public places, even if they brought their own marijuana with them, Session said.

'Our program doesn't envision people meeting in large groups to use medical marijuana,' Session said. 'When a user is using in the home they are less likely to get the attention of federal authorities.'

Werner's attorney, Ryan Mortier, said patients shouldn't be required to remain behind closed doors.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Institute in Washington D.C., said it's unlikely the U.S. Department of Justice would go to the trouble of arresting patients for smoking or possessing marijuana.

'These people feel like they are living in hiding, that they are criminals, and they shouldn't be made to feel that way,' Mortier said.

The Drug Policy Institute, an nonprofit group that advocates for change to drug policy and was instrumental in putting medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot in Nevada, Oregon, California and elsewhere, hasn't examined whether bring-your-own-marijuana clubs are permissible in other states where medical marijuana is legal, Piper said.

In California, federal officials arrested cannabis club operators for distributing the drug, not for possession, he said.

'Unless someone is growing thousands of marijuana plants and selling marijuana, I don't think the federal government is going to arrest them,' Piper said. 'I would find it hard to believe that the Department of Justice would come in and arrest people for smoking marijuana if that's all they're doing.'

Charles Miller, spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. referred questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nevada, where a spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Werner's patients, Warren Briscoe and John Powell, said it would be great to have a place where patients smoked together and shared information about their maladies.

Briscoe, a senior citizen who described himself as a 'stroke and cancer survivor,' said he doesn't grow his own marijuana and is sometimes forced to buy it from street dealers. If there was a place where he could get information on purchasing marijuana, he wouldn't have to take risks on the street and he could get better quality marijuana than he gets on the black market, he said.

'I respect the law, but nobody is going to tell me what to do with my well-being,' Briscoe said. 'Cancer patients need a place to discuss doctors and medications. It would be a good place to share information and get everybody on the same page.'

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