Prescription for pain

December 28, 2005

Emmily Bristol, Las Vegas City Life

Pierre Werner just can't catch a break. All he wants to do is sell medicinal marijuana, something Nevada voters have already approved. But Werner says the state medical marijuana board told him they would never issue him a license to dispense in Nevada, so the entrepreneur took his idea next door to California.

To be fair, there's some controversy about the legality of medical marijuana. While states such as Nevada and California have passed laws legalizing limited amounts of marijuana for medical purposes, the federal government says it's illegal, regardless of what voters have said.

Despite this little tiff, dispensaries in California are opening. So Werner decided to try his luck there, in the neighboring cities of Indian Wells and Palm Desert, Calif., both near Palm Springs.

"They're not being very business-friendly to me," says Werner, 34, of the reception he got.

Werner's was the first medicinal marijuana dispensary application submitted to Indian Wells. But at the Dec. 15 Indian Wells City Council meeting, the board voted 4-1 to pass a 45-day moratorium on the dispensaries until further study, effectively freezing Werner's application.

"There's a bit of a quandary there," says Stephen Deitsch, the contract city attorney for Indian Wells, referring to the contradiction between the state and federal laws on medicinal marijuana. "We want to study whether it's an appropriate [land] use."

Deitsch says the city won't accept any more applications during the moratorium. And the moratorium can be extended, by council votes, for up to two years.

But Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project's Lany Swerdlow disagrees. He's with an organization that represents patients' interests in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, on the medicinal marijuana issue.

"I'm not an advocate for medicinal marijuana dispensaries," Swerdlow says. "I'm an advocate for patients. But the reality is most patients can't grow it themselves."

Swerdlow says the current contradiction between the federal and state laws is leading to "medical marijuana dispensary hysteria" in some cities that don't want to see any pot legally sold. In effect, cities that don't want dispensaries can run the clock with moratoriums and denied applications, all while California residents with legal marijuana prescriptions are signing up for their county-issued ID cards and finding no one to legally fill their needs.

"It's not a question if we can ban this. It's a question of if it's already banned," Deitsch says.

Until the showdown between states and the feds comes to a conclusion, many cities, such as Indian Wells and Palm Desert, will be able to keep dispensary applicants in Catch-22 loops.

For instance, take Werner's Palm Desert application. That city has already granted one dispensary license, just before Thanksgiving. But just after Werner applied for the city's second, the council voted on a moratorium. Although, technically, his license is approved, the city is saying he can't open up shop.

Philip Drell, director of community development in Palm Desert, says the moratorium came about because the City Council felt the need to monitor the first dispensary and study the issue more before granting any more licenses.

But what made that first application so credible while Werner's wasn't?

Drell doesn't have an answer. However, he does repeat -- and often -- that the only people who can legally have medical marijuana are caregivers and patients.

"Part of the problem with Pierre is he's not really a California resident," Drell says.

Werner says he's commuting between Las Vegas and California until one of his applications comes through, after which he'll move to that city.

In the meantime, Werner says he's considering opening his Palm Desert dispensary under his business name MedicalMarijuanaReferrals.com regardless of the moratorium because he has his dispensary license number from the city.

"I want to help the sick and dying patients who need medical marijuana," Werner says.

It wouldn't be the first time Werner has decided to operate a business outside the margins. He currently sells medicinal marijuana here in Nevada, despite the legal controversy over the plant in this state.

Werner isn't without a sense of humor about his frustrating situation. In an e-mail after he talked to CityLife, Werner wondered if he could take up California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's offer to move Nevada businesses to his state.


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