Commentary: An argument for amending and extending Elko’s marijuana moratorium | Columnists

In last week’s City Council meeting it was decided in a 4 to 1 vote to move forward with a zoning ordinance that will permanently prohibit the sale of medical and recreational marijuana in the City of Elko. Mine was the lone dissenting vote. I have for a number of years supported access to medical marijuana in the City of Elko. I have also expressed my support for the citizen’s initiative which legalized recreational marijuana in Nevada over a year ago.

It is evident to me by the positions my good friends on the City Council have taken that they presently have no appetite for allowing the sale of marijuana in any form in the city. That is why I will make the following proposal at our next city council meeting.

The city has placed a moratorium on medical marijuana sales in Elko, scheduled to expire later this spring. I am proposing we amend and extend that moratorium. The amendment will impose a moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana as well. I will propose the moratorium be extended until the Spring of 2022, four years from now.

Some may argue this simply kicks the can down the road. I disagree. Attitudes in our community, our state and our nation continue to evolve in regards to legalized marijuana. It will be unfortunate for Elko to eliminate itself from taking advantage of the many opportunities it provides. A moratorium keeps the door open for our community and future City Councils to abide by the will of the citizens of Nevada.

In my view, the discussions in the council regarding marijuana can be broken down into three main concerns: compliance with federal law; health, safety and community values; and impact on the mining industry. Amending and extending the current moratorium provides a solution to each of those concerns. Let me address them one by one.

Federal Law. Currently the use of marijuana is illegal under federal law. As marijuana became legal in more and more states (now, more than half of the United States and the District of Columbia have legalized either medicinal and/or recreational marijuana) the U.S. Attorney General’s office issued what is known as The Cole Memo. The memo provided direction to U.S. Attorneys across the country. Specifically, the memo directed law enforcement to:

1) Prevent the distribution of marijuana to minors; 2) Prevent revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels; 3) Prevent the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states; 4) Prevent state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity; 5) Prevent violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana; 6) Prevent drugged driving and exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use; 7) Prevent the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and 8) Prevent marijuana possession or use on federal property.

This memo was unequivocal guidance to sworn law enforcement officers. It allowed law enforcement to enforce state laws regarding marijuana within their sworn duty to uphold federal law.

On January 4, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued new guidance regarding federal law enforcement of state marijuana laws. In it he rescinded the provisions listed above. However, he directed U.S. Attorneys to “weigh all relevant considerations, including federal law enforcement priorities set by the Attorney General, the seriousness of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.” In short, he leaves federal prosecution of state marijuana laws up to the discretion of the state’s U.S. Attorney. De facto: nothing has changed.

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt both opposed the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in Nevada. They do not condone its use. However, both declared after Sessions issued his memo that they will defend Nevada’s marijuana laws. Almost every other statewide office holder and most federal delegates have made the same declaration. Republican and Democratic leadership in Nevada have sounded their support for Nevada’s marijuana laws and will defend the will of the people of Nevada.

Health, Safety and Community Values. Some argue marijuana presents a significant health and safety concern to our community. I say the health and safety concerns of legal marijuana are no more significant than those already posed by alcohol consumption, opiate use, tobacco use, gambling, and legal prostitution in our community.

Reliable and easily accessible data shows alcohol kills 88,000 Americans each year … opioids kill 42,000 Americans each year, and many patients have found freedom from opioid addiction by turning to cannabis. There are no reported deaths from cannabis overdose … ever.

The Elko City Council permits and regulates legal prostitution. I have said in past council meetings that we are the “Stewards of the Sex Trade.” Each week prostitutes must submit to an examination to assure they are free of sexually transmitted diseases. Elko’s prostitutes regularly test positive for sexually transmitted diseases. More alarming are a significant number of occurrences of Elko prostitutes testing positive for HIV. When any infection is found, prostitutes are removed from “the line,” but perhaps too late. Legal prostitution presents an immediate health and safety concern in our community. A marijuana dispensary simply cannot compare.

In regards to community values, residents of the City of Elko voted against the initiative by a margin of just over one percent … 151 votes out of nearly 10,000 cast. However, if one takes the time to look at the breakdown of voting on the issue in individual Elko precincts, more precincts voted in favor of the initiative than against it. It gives one an excellent idea of what their neighbors think about recreational marijuana. It tells me most of my neighbors do not have a problem with it.

The Mining Industry. Other council members have argued the establishment of marijuana dispensaries in Elko does not support the mining industry. I say the mining industry is well equipped to and has successfully regulated marijuana use among its employees for decades. The industry is proactive, providing huge incentives to their employees, including excellent wages, educational opportunities, support for the community, and activities for their employees, their families and the public at large. Additionally, some mining organizations have made accommodations for their employees with medical marijuana cards.

A reasonably informed person can agree that for the last half century anyone who has wanted to obtain marijuana in Elko (or almost every community in America, for that matter) can readily do so. It has long been easy to obtain marijuana, and business and industry know how to deal with it themselves.

The City of Elko Vision Statement, a document presenting an aspirational view of our community, says we are “a non-intrusive, efficient city government.” Targeting and banning any legal enterprise in Elko discredits that vision statement. Amending and lengthening a moratorium on the establishment of marijuana dispensaries provides everything my friends on the council now desire, and leaves the door open for a future council to fulfill a shared vision for our community.

Please join me in supporting my proposal at the next Elko City Council meeting.

“A moratorium keeps the door open for our community and future City Councils to abide by the will of the citizens of Nevada.”

John Patrick Rice has been an Elko city councilman since 2007.

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