Voters in Nevada having in two consecutive elections demonstrated their support for medical marijuana through their approval of carefully crafted initiatives, it is now up to the state legislature to write and approve bills to implement the voters' mandate. Although the legislative session doesn’t begin until February 5th, parts of the Nevada medical establishment and the state attorney general's office have already presented a proposal that would thwart the popular will.
The wording of Nevada's medical marijuana initiative, which is now enshrined in the state constitution, is clear: "The legislature shall provide by law for" medical marijuana use for an open-ended list of specified and "other" disorders and conditions upon a physician's advice. It also "shall provide by law" for a registry of patients and "appropriate methods for supply of the plant to patients authorized to use it."
That message does not seem to have gotten through to Nevada Medical Marijuana Initiative Work Group, formed by three state health boards on their own initiative in the wake of the November election results. The group of pharmacists, doctors, and osteopaths last week issued a "white paper" calling on Gov. Kenny Guinn and the legislature to restrict medical marijuana use to research projects. Under the Work Group's plan, such research would have to run a bureaucratic gauntlet of approval first by a state committee of health care professionals, then by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Louis Ling, a former Deputy Attorney General and counsel for the state pharmacy board, who in that capacity represents the board in the state attorney general's office, coauthored the report. Ignoring a growing body of science supporting medical marijuana, he wrote that marijuana remains "a potential medicine" that must be "subjected to rigorous and exacting medical and scientific research."
The report conceded that its proposal "may restrict the access of some people to marijuana, since marijuana will only be available through approved medical research programs." After all, the report said, "access to experimental drugs is, by necessity, limited."
The Work Group also cited concerns about possible federal prosecution of doctors and patients. "The beauty of this medical research system is that once the feds have an approved research project, everybody involved is legally protected," Ling told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "You are not going to be exposing patients, doctors, or pharmacists to legal prosecution because it's federally approved."
Those arguments failed to sway Dan Hart, a spokesman for Nevadans for Medical Rights, the group that promoted the successful initiative drives. "It disturbs me that this self-appointed committee thinks its wisdom is greater than the voters," he told the Las Vegas Sun. "The voters were specific. They didn't want a study," Hart said. "If they were going to have a study, they didn't have to vote."
Hart sent a letter of protest to Ling asking, "Who will you choose, Mr. Ling? What patient will you deny their rights under the state constitution? Which physician will you notify that their constitutional right to approve the treatment of their patient has been denied by your ad hoc 'research' approval committee?"
Hart also blasted Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, whose office is thwarting the will of the voters, he said, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal jumped in with an editorial harshly criticizing Del Papa. Her job is to enforce the laws, not to write them, the paper scolded. "Attorney General Del Papa should butt out," concluded the editorial.
But Gina Pesulima of Americans for Medical Rights, the parent group and sponsor of Nevadans for Medical Rights, told DRCNet matters were not quite so clear-cut. "There is a lack of clarity about the origin of the Work Group," she said. "It was initiated by members of the state pharmacy board, and Louis Ling represents the board in the attorney general's office, but we haven't gotten any indication from Del Papa that she will endorse those proposals."
"We are trying to meet with her," Pesulima added, "and she has told us that the Work Group is not making proposals in her name."
"The Work Group invited us to participate, and Dan Hart sent a representative to one meeting, but it soon became clear that this group wasn't looking at implementation and distribution questions," she explained, "but were merely a group of individuals who already had an agenda. They accused us of being 'legalizers,'" said Pesulima. "We decided not to participate or endorse this effort since there would be no viable proposals coming from the Work Group."
Hart told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that group members accused his representative of being "either a dealer in illicit narcotics" or of having "a real estate interest in a marijuana plantation."
According to Pesulima, Hart and Dan Geary are leading the legislative effort, with Hart lobbying at the state house and Geary overseeing the grassroots and public relations aspects of the campaign.
But it's still early, she told DRCNet. "We're looking toward sponsoring legislation, but there is nothing set in stone yet. We're working with legislators to help create a distribution system now," she added.
Pesulima is confident of the ultimate outcome. "We're going to have to work hard, but one thing we have working for us is the clear intention of the voters as expressed in the elections. No legislator will want to take credit for thwarting the will of two-thirds of the voters."
Last year's round of successful medical marijuana initiatives may be the last sponsored by Americans for Medical Rights, Pesulima told DRCNet. "The sense is that we're going to stay entrenched in those states where we won victories and make sure they are implemented," she said. "If AMR had unlimited money to pass medical marijuana initiatives, we would do it everywhere, but we've gotten the signal from our big funders that there is a limit to their support for medical marijuana alone," she said.
"They would like to see the medical marijuana challenge taken to a higher level, and we are doing that in states where we've already won at the ballot box and we're seeing that with the California cannabis co-op case going to the Supreme Court, and in ongoing battles in Nevada and Maine on distribution. Now we're squaring off with the feds."
But, said Pesulima, AMR has other plans as well. "In the next couple of months we'll meet and figure out a few states where we'd like to do some polling about whether initiatives along the lines of California's Proposition 36 could win."
"Listen," said Pesulima, "for at least a decade, drug reformers have been issuing reports, holding conferences, and making suggestions on how to reform the laws, but the drug fighters never budged. Now we're raising the stakes."