It’s official. The City of Elko published a legal notice in Friday’s Elko Daily Free Press banning medical or recreational marijuana sales facilities. Combined with the county’s ban, the ordinance means patients who benefit from medical marijuana need to travel 200 or 300 miles to fill a prescription, even though marijuana use is legal statewide.
The debate over banning pot sales in the city was contentious, and the council’s decision was arguably a foregone conclusion. They had already blocked the sale of medical marijuana over the past four years that it has been regulated by the state.
In the end, the vote came down to Mayor Chris Johnson casting the tie-breaker. He made it clear that the overwhelming feedback he has received from constituents was against allowing a pot shop in town. The mayor is correct that concern about the surge in marijuana usage among our city’s youth outweighs the inconvenience for medical users.
The opinions expressed at this week’s council meeting illustrated how much marijuana has divided our town (nearly 50-50, according to the 2016 ballot) and both sides have legitimate arguments. These center on the medical benefits vs. negative social impact, as well as comparing the relative safety of pot to alcohol and prescription drugs.
In the second of two public hearings needed to pass the ordinance, several medical marijuana users testified in person or in writing that the ban imposes a hardship on them. And the reason many of them have turned to the drug is a timely one: They have found it to be a welcome escape from the potentially deadly trap of opioid abuse.
Doctor-prescribed pain pills are considered a socially acceptable treatment but they are estimated to kill nearly a hundred people a day. Marijuana is considered by the federal government to have no health benefits, but medical users see it as a safe and effective way to handle their symptoms.
I was surprised when no medical marijuana users showed up at City Hall to object to the ban during its first hearing. Some of them agreed to speak with our newspaper, providing we did not reveal their identities. They were afraid of pushback not only from the community at large, but also from their own family members.
They tell their personal stories in an extensive article in today’s edition by reporter Toni R. Milano. Even though many of the treatments they prefer lack the “high” of the THC component, they said they are still perceived as using an illicit substance.
The controversy begs the question: How much of what we know or believe about marijuana is based on fact, and how much is propaganda?
The drug has a long and varied history in the United States. According to a timeline prepared by the Public Broadcasting Service, marijuana was once a common ingredient in many remedies sold in this country. Labeling of cannabis-containing products did not occur until the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Recreational use of the plant increased at the same time, according to the Frontline report:
“After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants flooded into the U.S., introducing to American culture the recreational use of marijuana. The drug became associated with the immigrants, and the fear and prejudice about the Spanish-speaking newcomers became associated with marijuana …”
The drug saw greater use during Prohibition, and continued to grow after its repeal. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed it.
Marijuana was federally outlawed in 1937. Further legislation in the 1950s set heavy fines and prison sentences for simple possession.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that an advocacy group was formed to counter the trend. And in 1996, California became the first state to re-legalize medicinal use of the plant.
Still, the stigma of hair-brained dope heads ruining their lives — popularized in early propaganda films and later Hollywood movies — persists today. The persecution of pot is no longer racially motivated, but the gap between marijuana fiction and marijuana fact remains. Some Elkoans in respectable positions use the drug, but secretly to protect their reputations.
In the end, Elko’s medical marijuana users failed to convince a majority of council members to allow for local sales. This was a good decision, but it will not prevent the spread of a drug that has been widely available here on the black market for many decades. Now that investors have found ways to commercialize it, marijuana will continue to be used for legitimate purposes such as medical treatments, as well as for recreation.
As one city planning commissioner pointed out, “Prohibition didn’t work” with alcohol. People simply turned to making their own gin in bathtubs. Thanks to the city and county’s decision to ban sales, medical users are still free to grow their own marijuana at home, at virtually no cost. Many will also be getting “high” from it, because of the lack of local access to THC-free cannabis products.
Things could change in the near future. West Wendover is planning to open a medical dispensary later this year, but that drive is still more than 200 miles round-trip. And the Elko Band of the Te-Moak Tribe could end up putting a facility on reservation land that is indistinguishable from Elko proper.
Efforts to keep marijuana out of Elko are like pulling weeds.
Jeffry Mullins is editor of the Elko Daily Free Press.