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Forum brings marijuana front and center
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Forum brings marijuana front and center

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ELKO – Two city councilmen offered their opinions about marijuana to a crowd of about 40 people Friday night, resulting in an audience member announcing his run for city office.

Elko City Councilmen Reece Keener and John Patrick Rice appeared at the Elko Libertarian Party’s Liberty Salon Jan. 19 at Sierra Java to explain their positions on marijuana and take questions from the audience.

The forum comes as the city council prepares its first reading of an ordinance to prohibit a medical marijuana establishment in the city limits, which the Elko City Planning Commission denied.

Some audience members who spoke wanted to know why the city council was letting an economic opportunity pass them by, citing reports from Colorado and Reno, which are bringing in tax revenue to their local economies.

Others who said they were in favor of medical marijuana said the cost to leave town or have cannabis products delivered would become too expensive as time went on.

The forum was broadcast live on the Libertarian Party’s Facebook page, and elicited questions from viewers during a Q&A session.

Because of open meeting laws, Keener and Rice could not debate each other on the issues or comments made during the forum, but they could express their beliefs on marijuana and their thoughts on allowing a marijuana establishment within city limits.

Keener read from a three-page statement, stating that he knew the topic “invites conflict and is an emotional topic of discussion.”

“I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind here this evening,” Keener said. “What I intend to do is explain my thoughts on this complex matter.”

Regarding economics, Keener said that Reno’s recreational marijuana sales from four establishments brought in $152,000 in revenue in the first six months, which “amounts to a scant .007 percent of the marijuana sales.”

“This would provide for less than two additional police officers, when you back out the city’s administrative costs, annually,” Keener said. “Reno is proposing a 300 percent increase in taxation … as all of the economic benefits are going to the owners.”

Rice said a moratorium could buy time until 2022 and allow the community “to adjust itself” while the federal government worked on a decision on marijuana, noting U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei recently called on Congress to pass some sort of legislation.

A moratorium “won’t shut the door on things,” Rice continued. “Attitudes on marijuana are evolving all the time and ... it’s a lot more difficult to rescind or change an ordinance.”

However, questions from the audience and a Facebook live viewer pressed the councilmen as to why they did not want to see a boost to Elko’s economy through permitting a dispensary in the city limits.

Keener said an employee who works in Colorado told him he had not experienced evidence of problems related to marijuana consumption, but Keener said that the “the real results will probably bear out after there’s been a number of years of empirical data” and they are “able to find out what the hidden social costs are.”

“Whenever you legalize something like this, it puts a big burden on law enforcement and sometimes it takes awhile for those costs to catch up,” Keener said.

One audience member, Gratton Miller, said that without a dispensary the black market could take control of the marijuana market, and asked the councilmen “what have either of you done to revitalize the economy in Elko?”

“So much of it is beyond our control,” Keener said, “We’re dependent on commodity prices. We’re held captive by gold prices here and I know it’s been one thing NNRDA has been working on; ... it’s very difficult in a rural area.”

“They work quite diligently to diversify,” Keener said, explaining that he is also working to bring reliable broadband to the community.

Rice responded that the council can provide infrastructure to help the economy, adding that the city spent $8 million to put in a water line to Exit 298.

“We’ve done quite a bit to lay the foundation for diversification,” Rice said. “In regards to this matter, we have the opportunity to leave the door open for more diversification … depending how we go with this particular matter at our next meeting.”

Other audience members raised questions regarding Elko’s current drug problem that involve harder substances; the dangers of alcohol and tobacco use compared with marijuana use; allowing the private sector to open a dispensary; the needs of medical marijuana patients; and the Elko Indian Colony’s possible plan to open a dispensary and casino.

Laura Oslund, director of the PACE Coalition, addressed the audience members and the councilmen near the end of the forum.

“My concern is, with all due respect, you talk about the problems, alcohol, tobacco, and you guys like to think that marijuana isn’t as dangerous, but it is being proven that it is …” Oslund said. “God bless the CBD oil, God bless the medical marijuana that works. But when we’re talking about recreational, why bring another problem into our communities?”

“I don’t deny that there are dangers to using marijuana, alcohol and tobacco,” Rice said. “My argument has been that talking about Nevada’s lifestyle and the liberties people enjoy in Nevada, that to regulate one particular product differently than others is perhaps not the direction to go.”

After the forum concluded, Miller expressed his desire to run for Keener’s seat on the city council.

“I’m running because honestly it’s been the call of my life,” Miller said. “I studied political science in college and I’ve always wanted to run.”

“I feel I can make a difference to a lot of people and the town itself and be a better place to live in.”

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