With several members expressing concerns the state is headed for trouble, the Agriculture Commission on Thursday approved regulations to implement Nevada's medical marijuana program.
"I think it's a major slippery slope here," said member John Cooper.
"We're going into uncharted territory with this," agreed board member Jim Johnson. "But let's get it going and find out where the problems are."
The regulations laid out by Agriculture Director Paul Iverson and Assistant Director Don Henderson make it clear the state is only reviewing applications for patients who need medical marijuana and issuing registration cards exempting them from state prosecution. Henderson said the state is assuming no responsibility for how patients get their pot or seeds to grow it and will provide no help in growing it.
Registered users and their designated caregiver are allowed to possess up to an ounce of prepared marijuana, three mature plants and four immature plants without fear of state prosecution. But Henderson made it clear that doesn't protect them from the federal law.
"People who are in this program are susceptible to federal prosecution," he said.
And he said neither the department nor the board was taking a position on the validity of the program.
"Decisions whether this is right or wrong - the medical use of marijuana - have already been made by the Legislature and are not the purview of this board," Henderson said.
With that assurance, the board voted unanimously to approve the regulations so that the program can start as legislatively mandated on Oct. 1.
Also on Oct. 1, the penalty for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana drops from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Cecile Crofoot, who will manage the program for the department, said she will begin taking applications for medical marijuana registration cards Sept. 24 and that Iverson will begin ruling on those applications Oct. 1.
The notification letter patients receive, she said, will be the patient's temporary registration card for up to 30 days while they go to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a permanent card.
But she said after the meeting she doesn't expect a large number of applications immediately because, in the experience of other states, it takes a while before doctors start signing the letters agreeing marijuana might help in the treatment of specific medical conditions.
In Oregon, which Nevada used as a model for its law, it took nearly two months for the first doctor to sign a recommendation letter.
Doctors will write letters, rather than prescriptions, because writing a prescription for marijuana would violate federal medical standards and cost doctors the right to prescribe any controlled medicines.
The Nevada Legislature was mandated to approve a medical marijuana plan by a vote of the state's residents. Some two-thirds of the electorate supported the plan.
The board was also told Nevada will be the ninth state to approve medical marijuana and, although it still violates federal law, the federal government hasn't gone after individual registered users in any of those other states.
Henderson agreed there may be problems with the law but said they were looking at the period between now and the 2003 Legislature as a "trial period" to work out those bugs.
Iverson said his department will watch the registered users and caregivers while the Medical Examiners will keep close tabs on doctors to make sure none of them abuse the new law.
One of the problems, he said, may be the cost. He said they may have to ask the 2003 Legislature to put some money in their budget to manage the program if it grows to any size.
Board Chairman Benny Romero asked him to report back at each board meeting over the next year on progress and problems with the medical marijuana program.