Police and prosecutors can still enforce laws related to cannabis that legalization was intended to eliminate. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)
U.S. attitudes toward cannabis have begun to change as more states have decriminalized or legalized cannabis medically and recreationally. Here in Nevada, cannabis has become a lucrative and profitable commodity for dispensaries and wholesalers, but prosecutors and police continue to treat cannabis like heroin and methamphetamine rather than respecting the voice of Nevada voters.
Voters approved the Nevada Medical Marijuana Act, which legalized cannabis for medical use in our state and enshrined cannabis’ medical value in the Nevada Constitution nearly 25 years ago. Then in 2016, Nevada voters approved the Initiative to Regulate and Tax Marijuana, which permitted the legal possession of cannabis for recreational purposes. The initiative was explicit in its intent, including directives to stop using resources needed to prevent violent and property crimes to prosecute cannabis-related offenses and to regulate cannabis in the same manner as alcohol.
The passage of these items were promising steps toward putting an end to the failed war on drugs, which treated Black, Brown, and low-income communities disproportionally as it pertained to cannabis use and sale. These items were also promising in that they could reduce mass incarceration while concurrently dispelling the long-disproven notion that cannabis could not be used for medical treatment. On the surface, Nevada made headway in righting past wrongs, but a loophole is being abused by the government, police departments, and district attorney’s offices to continue the enforcement of unsound policies and laws related to cannabis — policies that legalization was intended to eliminate.
The Nevada Legislature previously delegated the authority to the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy to classify drugs into “schedules.” The Board’s Schedule I list is reserved for substances such as heroin and methamphetamine, that have no medicinal value or cannot be safely distributed. Cannabis is still classified by the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means it has no medical value or it cannot be safely distributed, even though the Nevada Constitution has expressly recognized cannabis’ medical value and mandated that it be dispersed to the public for the last quarter of a century.
Nonetheless, police departments and prosecutors are using these laws to charge individuals with felony level offenses for possessing cannabis. For example, if an individual purchases cannabis from a dispensary, shares it with a friend, and the friend reimburses them, an officer could charge that individual with possessing for sale a Schedule I substance, a felony that could come with at least a year in prison, because police officers view being reimbursed for cannabis as a sale. Compare this with an individual purchasing alcohol at a store for a friend and being reimbursed. That individual would not be charged with a criminal offense, and certainly not a felony.
When Nevada voters legalized cannabis for recreational use, they required that cannabis be treated in the same manner as alcohol, but it is clear cannabis is still treated very differently from alcohol. When I have explained this problematic practice to others, they ask if law enforcement is really going after people in this way. The answer is unequivocally yes.
This practice wastes resources on prosecuting cannabis-related offenses and follows the same playbook as the racist war on drugs always has, with enforcement disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities. Nevada has come a long way in decriminalizing cannabis and remedying decades of harm, but we have not crossed the finish line. As long as this loophole exists for the government and its officials to exploit, cannabis will never truly be legal and racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests will not cease to exist.
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