Medical marijuana has occupied a constant corner of local news for months now. The national debate is snagging headlines again too, such as this morning’s report about Colorado’s financial alternative to the U.S. Treasury Department. On her last visit to Las Vegas, Congresswoman Dina Titus sat and shared what she’s up to at the federal level.
DC: You’ve been making some moves on the medical marijuana front lately. Why?
TITUS: If it happens in Nevada, it's going to happen in District 1. We are the Strip, the airport, the university, the Arts District and downtown. This is where that action is going to be, so we want to be sure that we do it right.
DC: Broadly speaking, do you support the development of this industry here?
TITUS: I do. I supported it when it first passed a dozen years ago overwhelmingly – like two-to-one Nevadans in favor of it. And I hear all kinds of stories, most often from veterans, because I'm on the Veterans Committee, about PTSD and pain management and nausea with chemotherapy. I think if it helps and a doctor thinks it helps, and you think it helps, I don't want to be the one to stand in the way of that.
DC: Things are happening at the local level, with Clark County already receiving more than 200 medical marijuana business license applications. At the federal level, what can you do?
TITUS: There are a number of business operations that can't take place because people are worried about it being illegal. One of the main ones is banking. No other small business wants to operate without banking. That means it's cash-and-carry. There's no accountability. If you're going to regulate it, if you're going to tax it, you need that banking structure in place. So, I'm co-sponsoring legislation at the federal level to say that banks can do legitimate business in those states where medical marijuana has been legalized.
DC: Anything else?
TITUS: The second part of that is that people don't want to be in this business at the state level and make an investment if they're afraid the federal government is going to swoop in on them. So, the other bill that I'm co-sponsoring would just say that if you are an individual or a business operating in a state where it's legal, you can't be pursued by the federal government.
DC: In other words, that would prevent prosecution, but it wouldn't actually move marijuana from being a [DEA controlled substance] schedule 1 narcotic to a level 2 or 3.
TITUS: No, not at this point.
DC: Is there any movement in that direction?
TITUS: There's some possibility of that, but I think that will be harder to get passed than either of these other two.
DC: It sounds like a piecemeal approach. Are you chipping away at road blocks in order to get to the ultimate goal?
TITUS: I think that's right, and you've already seen this start to take place. The President has already announced that it's not a priority; the Attorney General isn't going to be prosecuting these cases. But the President's only there for two more years. Who knows what's going to happen after that? You need the security of legislation, because this is a big business.
DC: How would the banking legislation affect the states that don't have medical marijuana laws and may not approve of it? Some of those banks may be based in those states.
TITUS: Well, I've talked to the bankers about this, and they appreciate the legislation, because they know this is big business, and they want to be part of it. I think they would see themselves as doing it in the states where it's legal, not in states where it's not legal. … I believe you'll find that more and more states are moving in this direction. You see it on ballots, talked about in legislatures. There are 22 states where it’s legal now, but this is moving pretty fast.
DC: A marijuana consultant recently told me that he believes Nevada will be the pot capital of the U.S. and that recreational use is on the horizon. Can you see that?
TITUS: At this point, medical marijuana is what's legal. It's going to be here by the end of the year, so that's the focus now. But I think pretty close on the heels of this you'll see some movement in the retail use of marijuana too, like you see in Washington and Colorado.
DC: Within your district is our biggest state industry – casinos, hotels, entertainment. Are you getting any pushback from them about this, since anything illegal is taboo in gaming?
TITUS: So far, the gaming industry has stayed out of it. I think they want to look and see what's happening in Washington and Colorado. But, I think they are looking at how this changes the market. Because if it comes, it will have a great deal of impact on our whole tourism industry, and on our entertainment, on marketing, on restaurants. So, at this point, they're kind of in a "Let's wait and see" stage, but they haven't aggressively opposed it.
DC: Some people feel the FDA is standing in the way of this industry's development. Is there anything you can do on that front?
TITUS: Up to now, the FDA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have only been willing to give out some of the product to be tested to show its bad effects, not the potential benefits. Last week we sent a letter to them saying, "Don't stand in the way. We need more research. We want to do this the right way, and we need the scientific evidence to be sure what ailments it helps and which ones it may not be good for."
DC: And how about the VA, as another medical institution?
TITUS: I'm glad the VA is studying it, to look at its potential effects on PTSD. We want to be sure that VA doctors can prescribe it in states where it's legal. We had a big debate on the floor about this just last week. [Representative Earl] Blumenauer offered an amendment to the VA bill, and I spoke on the floor about it saying if it's legal in a state, don't keep a VA doctor from at least talking about the possibility of it. They can't even tell you NOT to do it right now. Somebody local here would have to prescribe it.
DC: Driving to your office, on Charleston I saw a green building with a sign on the street that had a big marijuana leaf and the words, "Get legal, $275." This may be a natural part of any boom, but do you worry that some people will get swindled?
TITUS: There's an app called WeedMaps. It gives you a map of all the dispensaries, but they're little operations like the one you described, and once those licenses go into place, law enforcement is going to shut those places down.
DC: Anything else you want to tell me about this?
TITUS: Just that it's a state's rights issue. So many states want it; the federal government shouldn't be standing in the way of that. The support for it is going to build in Congress. The more people who see it work, the more states that bring it online, the more pressure there is from veterans and seniors, the more you'll see people outside Colorado, Washington and me get behind this.
DC: You recently made a trip to California to do some research on this. What’s the most important thing you learned?
TITUS: Well, I visited a facility that is known as one that does it the best in California, the Apothecarium, and it was very interesting to see just how professional it is. A lot of people like to make jokes about dope and getting stoned and all that. This was a very professional operation. It's agribusiness. It's science. It's health. The people working there had masters degrees in public health and chemistry. There was a lot of evidence that the neighborhood has gone up and not down as a result of it being there, because of all the security. It's a legitimate business, and I was impressed to see that. That's why I want us to do it right here in Nevada, kind of by standards like that.
DC: Anything you saw there that you think we should not do?
TITUS: Well, I think that because of Nevada's statute it will be much more controlled here in Nevada than it is in California. Also, the prescription drug card you get here, I think, is a lot more legitimate, a lot harder to counterfeit than in some other places. So, I'm pretty happy with Nevada's taking what's happened in California another step.
DC: How do you feel about Nevada's medical marijuana industry being for-profit, compared to other states, such as California, where it's nonprofit?
TITUS: I think it does make sense, because it will get the best people in the business here. It has already attracted how many people who want to have the license.
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