Nevada Medical Marijuana Law Goes Into Effect Next Week, But Program Lacks Funds, Simple Possession Reduced to Misdemeanor 9/28/01

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Nevada voters overwhelmingly approved the medicinal use of marijuana in two elections in 1998 and 2000, and the state legislature enacted legislation to implement the will of the voters earlier this year. Gov. Kenny Guinn signed the bill. The new law's program goes into effect on October, and people are already lining up to register. There's just one problem: There is no money to pay for it.

The state Department of Agriculture will run the program, which enables sufferers of AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, muscular dystrophy, seizures or severe nausea who obtain a doctor's signature to register as officially-recognized medical marijuana patients. Registered patients can possess up to three mature marijuana plants and four immature plants at one time. They can also possess one ounce of harvested marijuana.

Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani (D-Las Vegas), who sponsored the enabling legislation, had originally earmarked $30,000 for the first year's program costs -- primarily staff time at the Agriculture Department -- but she told the Las Vegas Review she removed the funds from the bill after it became apparent that legislation using taxpayer funds for the program might not pass.

Gov. Guinn did not include the $30,000 in his annual budget, which incited former gubernatorial candidate Aaron Russo to chide the governor for ignoring the will of the voters and Agriculture Department head Paul Iverson for calling the program an "unfunded mandate."

"This is not an unfunded mandate," he told the Review-Journal in July. "It is a constitutional law. How can you vote for a governor who doesn't listen to the will of the people? The people wanted medical marijuana. It is the law of the land. Guinn, who opposed the medical marijuana initiatives, "is a dinosaur," Russo added. The initiative last year garnered 100,000 votes more than the governor did, he noted. (Russo at the time also vowed to donate the $30,000 himself, but the Hollywood producer has so far not come through.)

In May, when the funding issue arose, Guinn's office said it did not include funding because the governor doubted the legality of a medical marijuana program. "The federal government has tried to restrict medical marijuana programs in every state that tried to start them," Guinn spokesman Jack Finn told the Review-Journal.

Agriculture head Iverson vowed to start the program anyway. "We are going to take care of it with existing staff," Iverson said. "It is no different than any other unfunded mandate. We encourage donations, but we are going to make it work with what we have." The department had collected $3,000 in donations, he said.

Cecile Crofoot, the Ag Department's medical marijuana program manager, told the Review-Journal she had sent out 24 application forms as of September 24 and she had fielded about a hundred additional inquiries from possible applicants. She said the process of applying and becoming registered as a medical marijuana user would take "several weeks." Once prospective participants receive their applications, they must then be fingerprinted to ensure that they have not been convicted of a drug distribution felony. Under the new law, persons with such convictions cannot participate in the program. Once the application has been approved, Crofoot will notify the applicants and they must go to a local Department of Motor Vehicles office to obtain a $9 license allowing them to legally possess marijuana for medical purposes.

People who wish to apply for the program can contact Crofoot at (775) 684-5333, she added.

Nevada will become the ninth state to enact legal protections for medical marijuana users. (Voters in the District of Colombia also have, but Congress blocked the city from implementing them.)

Also on October 1, Nevada ends its lonely run as the only state in the nation to make it a felony to possess even small amounts of marijuana. Again led by Assemblywoman Giunchigliana, the legislature agreed to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a misdemeanor carrying a $600 fine, with escalating fines for subsequent offenses. A fourth possession offense, however, will be treated as a felony.

In recent years, even under the felony possession statute, few smokers went to prison; most instead faced fines in the hundreds of dollars. But now the specter of the prison gate moves even further into the distance for Nevada tokers.

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