Legislators jet out of the Capitol today for an out-of-state marijuana jaunt.
Five state senators and one member of the Assembly are flying to Phoenix to tour a medical marijuana dispensary and a grow house before meeting with Arizona legislators to talk about the state's new system for getting the drug to patients.
Sen. Tick Segerblom, a lawyer and Democrat from Las Vegas who has a poster of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in his Carson City office, organized the fact-finding mission.
He hopes Nevada lawmakers can create dispensaries here and fix a quirk in Nevada law whereby people are constitutionally allowed to have medical marijuana but cannot legally purchase it in the state.
"We're going to hear lots of reasons why we can't do it (or) we shouldn't do it, but to me, if Arizona, which is the most conservative state in the country, can do it, then Nevada can do it," Segerblom said. "It's not a junket. It's not taxpayer money, but it is a legitimate working trip to see it in person."
Traveling with Segerblom will be senators Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas; Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas; David Parks, D-Las Vegas; Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas; and Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, R-Las Vegas. The lawmakers are paying their own way; Segerblom's campaign is paying for the bus.
"I want to learn more about these medical marijuana dispensaries," Kihuen said. "If it's a bill that we're going to consider here in the Legislature, in order for us to make an informed decision, we have to go out there to other states and see how they're doing it."
In Arizona, the hope is that the no-nonsense Maricopa County law enforcement and strait-laced dispensary operators can prove to Nevada legislators that medical marijuana dispensaries are safe and controlled.
A court challenge blaming the Nevada Legislature for a poorly written medical marijuana law adds gravity to the trip. A conservative judge called the current laws "ridiculous" in a case that's before the Nevada Supreme Court.
The state constitution makes it clear that the Legislature "shall" provide for use of medical marijuana, but Nevada law makes it difficult for patients to actually obtain the drug after they've paid application fees and received a card from the state's health department, said Steve Yeager with the Clark County Public Defender's Office.
"They are placed into a Catch-22 type situation because of the way the law is written," he said. "That is, they have legal, state-recognized access to medical marijuana but no practical way to obtain it."
Segerblom's bill, Assembly Bill 374, would allow for the establishment and regulation of nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries for about 3,600 Nevadans with active medical marijuana cards.
Now, patients or their caregivers basically have to grow their own plants, which Yeager equates to a doctor ordering patients in pain to go home and manufacture their own pills without the convenience of a pharmacy.
With that problem in mind, legislators have been researching marijuana in preparation for the Arizona trip.
Legislators at a February legislative hearing considered the politics of marijuana, digressing into a conversation about the film "Reefer Madness" and the scare tactics used in the early 20th century to argue for criminalizing pot. They also discussed more recent trends: 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, 12 have provided for dispensaries and two have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.
Democrats such as Segerblom might not be the only lawmakers who end up endorsing medical marijuana dispensaries.
Enter Hutchison, who said he has never smoked marijuana and knows little about it.
Framing it as a states' rights, constitutional issue, Hutchison said he would like to work with Segerblom to find a way to help sick Nevadans exercise the constitutional right to medical marijuana that voters approved by wide margins in 1998 and 2000.
"I will definitely support a procedure for safely, securely and legally dispensing medical marijuana because the constitution requires us to do it," he said.
Segerblom's bill needs bipartisan support because two-thirds of the Legislature needs to approve it, meaning Democrats alone cannot pass the bill.
Segerblom said he hopes his bill will be more palatable to legislators than Assembly Bill 402, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
"I think we need to demonstrate that we can produce and control medical marijuana before we attempt to legalize and tax it," he said in an email.
Still, the politics and stigma surrounding marijuana could make passage of the bill difficult.
Unlike the seriousness that surrounds the use and abuse of other illegal and legal drugs, the matter of the cannabis plant provokes joking and stifled giggles at the Legislature.
Late Monday, Segerblom's medical marijuana bill still needed to be referred to a committee. During a break, senators joked that a "joint committee" ought to consider the bill. Another senator said the natural resources committee should consider this "natural resource." A third noticed the disagreement and said the "high court" should decide the matter.
The bill ultimately ended up in Segerblom's judiciary committee, where it is likely to pass and end up before the Senate for a possible vote.
"Realistically, the problem is that when you use the word marijuana, a lot of politicians get very skittish and think that somehow or other they're endorsing smoking marijuana, which they're not," Segerblom said. "The key to this whole thing in my opinion is that there is no marijuana going to people other than people who have cards."
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