People buy marijuana products at the Essence cannabis dispensary, in Las Vegas, Nevada on the first day of adult-use sales, July 1, 2017. (John Locher, The Associated Press)

Nevada’s cannabis sales start has changed the legal landscape

LAS VEGAS — Just over two years after filling out tens of thousands of sheets of paperwork for their medical marijuana licenses, Nevada weed entrepreneurs didn’t have it as bad this time around, according to lawyers in the new recreational industry.

While first-time marijuana business owners scrambled to meet state demands for obtaining their licenses back in 2015 — which included long applications, large amounts of cash, hiring and security — the process of entering the recreational business has been a matter of “fine-tuning,” as more experienced license-holders are now looking more for clarification on individual regulations in 2017.

“The questions are more specific. Before it was, ‘How do we do this, how do we operate?'” said Las Vegas attorney Riana Durrett, who serves as executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “Now, the owners are very familiar with the laws, and it’s specific questions and fine-tuning.”

Durrett, who earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is one of several practicing attorneys in the valley working to help business operators understand Nevada’s new recreational marijuana laws. Those laws allow adults 21 and older to use and possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana flower or 1/8 ounce of the THC equivalent of concentrates, such as shatter, wax and carbon dioxide oil.

This year, the Legislature and the Nevada Department of Taxation cleared the way for “early start” sales of the plant to begin July 1.

The turnaround of less than nine months from the time the ballot question passed to the kickoff of recreational sales made Nevada the first of four states that legalized adult-use weed in last year’s election to have its new industry up and running. That timeline resulted in a flurry of questions for lawyers — regarding both business and criminal law — as purveyors and consumers scrambled to keep pace with the evolving legal landscape.

Durrett, whose advocacy organization represents more than 80 percent of pot dispensaries across Nevada, said among questions she received the most from license holders was how to apply new packaging and labeling regulations for the recreational industry. Senate Bill 344, passed this session, mandated that edible products don’t resemble candy or other substances marketed to children, and that all packages be labeled “This is a marijuana product” in bold print. Language from the bill was later adopted in an emergency regulation on edibles by the industry’s regulating body, the Department of Taxation.

Employees of marijuana businesses in Nevada are now allowed to use their state-issued marijuana agent cards to work at any of the state’s 60 marijuana dispensaries, 88 cultivation facilities, 57 production facilities or 11 testing laboratories. Previous regulations in the medical marijuana industry forced weed workers to apply for a new agent card each time they moved to a new position — a process that took four to six weeks, even when the employee was moving between dispensaries.

“It has made life much easier for employers and their employees,” Durrett said of the recently passed Assembly Bill 422, which paved the way for the streamlined agent card process. “It’s helped us avoid having to reinvent the wheel.”

Criminal defense lawyer Nicholas Wooldridge of LV Criminal Defense has represented Las Vegas clients since moving back to the valley from New York City in 2014. Wooldridge, who also graduated from UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, said the number of criminal clients his office serves for marijuana-related offenses has decreased drastically since 2015. Once representing more than a dozen clients at a given time for weed crimes, Wooldridge can now count the marijuana offenders he represents on one hand.

“Prior to the law, it was common to see people charged with having some weed on them, but it’s not too often now unless you’re dealing pot,” he said. “I don’t think cops are looking to get into people’s houses to see if they have over an ounce of weed.”

Wooldridge said cases of most low-level marijuana offenders “haven’t been taken seriously” in court since Ballot Question 2 passed in November, and many marijuana cases that would have been prosecuted prior to this year are now being dismissed. Those most at risk are motorists driving under the influence of weed.

Wooldridge questioned legislation that classifies marijuana users whose blood contains two or more nanograms of marijuana or five or more nanograms of marijuana metabolites per milliliter of blood as impaired and subject to DUI charges. He calls that protocol “flawed,” arguing that samples from people who frequently use the plant could test above the legal limit days after last using pot, even though they’re not high at the time of their arrest. Metro Police spokesman Officer Larry Hadfield confirmed that valley police were “always on the lookout” for impaired drivers and said those who failed a field sobriety test would be arrested.

“People who smoke pot have to be really careful not to get pulled over,” Wooldridge said. “Or at least if you do get pulled over, be in a state where they don’t suspect that you could possibly be stoned.”

Attorney Amanda Connor of Connor & Connor PLC, perhaps the most well-known lawyer representing pot industry licensees in Nevada, said the recreational industry’s long-term success would revolve primarily around its ability to resolve an ongoing wholesale distribution dispute and its capacity to develop reliable permanent regulations once the current early start regulations expire Jan. 1.

Connor said permanent regulations for the industry should “work themselves out” as a combination of tweaks from the early start regulations and recommendations from Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recreational marijuana task force, appointed this year. Connor added that progress — including a determination for how the Department of Taxation quantifies the amount of distribution sufficient to run the industry — still must be made on the ongoing wholesale dispute with licensed alcohol distributors before the weed industry can feel confident about its ability to legally supply dispensaries.

“A lot still has to play out, but there’s reason to believe the industry will stabilize and develop,” Connor said. “I think Nevada will have big numbers going forward.”

Via AP Member Exchange. Information from: Las Vegas Sun