To Ask Permission or Beg Forgiveness?

Ouch.  It looks like Nevada’s medical cannabis reciprocity law could shut out most California medical cannabis patients—that is, if the recommendations from the Nevada Attorney General are put into play.

Just this week, AG Adam Laxalt responded to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services’ clarification query on whether out-of-state residents should be allowed to use a California physician’s note to purchase medical marijuana. His opinion letter said, “A recommendation from a California physician ad (sic) a driver’s license from another state cannot be used to obtain medical marijuana from a Nevada dispensary.”

Up until now, the reciprocity law language—which says that state patients using the “functional equivalent of a registry identification card”—has been interpreted to include doctor’s notes in addition to state-issued medical cards.  Unfortunately, the doctor’s note is not issued from a government authority, which the law specifies.

It wasn’t that long ago that Nevada made headline news as the first state in America to allow full medical marijuana reciprocity. Unlike other U.S. states where medical cannabis is legal, Nevada made it clear early on that it would open the state’s market to medical marijuana patients from other states.

On retrospect, this may have been too good to be true.

Nevada has had a long and complicated journey to legalizing medical cannabis. While it was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, getting it into the hands of patients has been rocky. In 1998, Nevada passed Question 9, a constitutional ballot initiative, and two years later, ratified the law with 65% of the vote in 2000. Then in 2001, regulations for the growth of marijuana per Nevada’s Department of Agriculture were created, but altered in 2003, 2005, and 2009. Not until 2013 did the legislature and governor finally modify law to allow the operation of dispensaries. And, it wasn’t until a year ago (August 2015) that the first Nevada dispensary opened. Since then there have been more interruptions including medical cannabis shortages dues to testing failures and delays in processing medical marijuana cards.

Nevada’s delays aside, ‘begging forgiveness rather than asking permission’ may have played out better for Nevada dispensaries and California medical cannabis patients. Though the Department of Health and Human Services was just doing its job, it may have fared better not asking the question at all, as the opinion letter certainly came as an unwelcome surprise to Nevada dispensaries.

Refusing to accept California physician recommendation letters, Nevada dispensaries are likely to be out a huge amount of business. One dispensary owner estimates that 40% of his business comes from out-of-state patients, a large percentage of whom are California residents. This makes sense when you consider that California has nearly 2 million residents who have physician recommendations—but only about 10% of these patients have medical id cards.

What can we possibly do about this?  Two things. One, we can change the Nevada medical law, which might become possible when the legislature convenes again. Or, two, we can LEGALIZE FOR ALL ADULTS IN NOVEMBER!  Yes, that would render the opinion less devastating, and fulfill the promise of the start-up businesses who based their future on a different interpretation than the AG put out.

What’s also at issue here is the importance of crafting the letter of the law appropriately without getting trapped in how it will be interpreted. Poorly worded language in any initiative or legislation can lead to unintended consequences, which can lead to a ripple effect that tumbles the intent with which the law was created. We’ve seen this unfold in what could be called one of the worst assaults on Proposition 215 when the City Council of Long Beach, California—which had a general prohibition against dispensaries in place since 2012—considered a liberal version of a city law allowing nine dispensaries in response to the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), but back peddled and ultimately tabled the decision based on their interpretation of MMRSA. Consequently, we’ve seen more cities move to ban dispensaries too.

Medical cannabis is now some variation of legal in 25 states, and the majority of Americans approve of it as a medical option. We are reaching an influential turning point in which legislators and officials must be careful in the laws they write…it is not just “if” now, but also “how.” Meanwhile, we are at a tipping point.  After the loss in Ohio, opposition is emboldened in California, Nevada and Florida because we have a chink in the armor of forward progress.

Regardless of how we feel about the specifics we must keep moving in the right direction.  This cannot become a failed social experiment.  We must continue to relegalize cannabis and hemp in the USA.  Be present in this election cycle, and tell your friends to show up! Vote YES in November 2016 no matter what state you live in.  Don’t stand still while more lives are ruined…good can not be the enemy of great.  Let’s move forward.

Dale headshot thumbnail 2Dale Sky Jones
Oaksterdam University
Executive Chancellor