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Blowing smoke: Medical marijuana patients gear up for court battles

<p>THINKSTOCK</p>

THINKSTOCK

Paranoia is a well-known side affect of smoking pot. But the demon weed didn’t have anything to do with the anxiety inside this meeting room full of patients with medical marijuana cards.

Every month, a Meetup group for medical marijuana patients and their supporters holds a meeting to plan events. No marijuana is consumed or exchanged. The meeting is strictly informational.

On July 21, about two dozen pot patients gathered in an herbal supplement store at Charleston and Decatur. Technically it was a back room, but there was nothing shady about this get-together. There was a sign-in sheet, folding chairs and a hearty welcome for newcomers.

But the mood changed when Vicki Higgins, one of the group’s organizers, got up to speak.

“We are not here to exchange plants or trade medicine,” she said. “We are just here to exchange information.”

Obviously, medical marijuana is not your typical prescription drug. It is legal in Nevada, but can’t be bought or sold. When local and federal authorities busted several dispensaries in 2010 and 2011, it threw the community into disarray. Those who had been getting marijuana from the dispensaries had to find new sources of the drug.

And that’s where things get tough. The law allows patients to possess up to three mature plants, but it doesn’t say anything about how patients are supposed to get those plants. Magic, maybe?

There are other problems with the law. One medical marijuana user who grows her own medicine balks at the section of the law that restricts patients to 1 ounce of usable weed. A healthy plant may produce three to five times that much, she said.

The law, which was passed in 2000, has been tragically flawed from the start and is facing a challenge at the Nevada Supreme Court. But patients had been quietly dealing with its problems until the brief eruption of dispensaries in 2010.

After the raids, patients began to feel that they, and their medicine, were being targeted by law enforcement. Metro has recently busted several grow houses and marijuana fields on Mt. Charleston. The police department warned the community to be on the lookout for grow houses and pot farms. Medical marijuana patients wondered whether all this attention could lead to arrests of law-abiding, card-carrying citizens.

Metro spokesman Marcus Martin said that couldn’t be further from the truth. The department doesn’t keep statistics on arrests involving card-holding marijuana patients. The department only arrests people who are violating the law by selling or distributing marijuana. As long as a patient doesn’t do that, he won’t get in trouble, Martin said.

The grow houses busted by Metro have averaged about 150 plants — more than 20 times the number of plants allowed by law for authorized card-holders.

“The biggest problem we had were the dispensaries,” Martin said. “Basically, these people were just using a storefront to deal marijuana.”

But sick people with legitimate cards? He said the agency has no interest in arresting them. Concerns about the law haven’t stopped people from applying for cards. In the last year, more than 1,100 patients submitted applications to the state-run Medical Marijuana Program. That represents almost a 50 percent increase in the medical marijuana patients. Most applicants are approved, as long as they have a valid letter from a licensed doctor and pass a criminal background check.

Lee Kolinsky is one of them. The 48-year-old computer scientist received his card in June of this year.

“Before that, I was not aware this was a program in Nevada,” Kolinsky said.

All the press from the dispensary busts may have enlightened people like Kolinsky. He’s well-versed in the law and knows exactly what kinds of plants are illegal. But it’s still difficult to follow the law as written.

Which is why the Meetup group isn’t waiting for the Supreme Court to clarify the law. They also want to lobby the Legislature to pass better regulations. After a dozen years of waiting for the laws to be made clear and workable, you might think these folks are frustrated and pessimistic about the potential for change. Not so. These patients are optimistic. Politicians and voters have become increasingly aware of the program’s flaws, and perhaps more determined to do something about it.

In the meantime, Higgins and others will keep telling patients how to stay on the right side of the law — and figuring out the best way to make that possible.