When Can Utahns Buy Pot In West Wendover?

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West Wendover City Hall has received an abnormal volume of phone calls from the 801 area code.

The interest: Nevada’s passage of a ballot initiative that will legalize recreational marijuana less than two hours from Salt Lake City. Callers wondered how to apply for a dispensary license, or when they’ll be able to come partake, said City Clerk Anna Bartlome.

West Wendover’s answer: Beats us.

It may be years before Utahns can head west on Interstate 80 for a state-sanctioned border buzz – or even longer, if rural officials get a say.

On Jan. 1, it will become legal in Nevada for those over 21 to possess up to an ounce of the drug, and residents will be able to grow six plants for personal use.

Sales are a different matter, though. The state first has to create regulations, which may be a source of debate during February’s legislative session. Then, for 18 months, only those who now hold medical marijuana licenses will be eligible to sell the recreational stuff. Nevada legalized medicinal marijuana in 2000.

There are no such licensees in Elko County, where local officials have either banned or placed on hold medical sales in unincorporated areas (like Jackpot, on the Idaho border) and the county’s four municipalities (which include West Wendover).

Four of Elko County’s five commissioners – who oversee an area larger than nine U.S. states – opposed the initiative.

Said one, Demar Dahl: "I’m concerned about what kind of an element it’s going to bring in."

Another, Glen Guttry, said adult users shouldn’t be jailed, "but there’s too many other things that don’t make sense right now" about legal sales.

Added Cliff Eklund: "We already have one drug that’s legal that’s caused millions of dollars of damage, divorces and crime, and that’s alcohol, and we’re just kind of doubling down on the thing if we legalize marijuana."

They said they worried about the drug’s effects on drivers. A survey of nearly 900 people who had used marijuana in the past 30 days in Colorado and Washington – two states that voted to allow recreational pot in 2012 – found that 44 percent had driven under its influence in the past year, and 24 percent had driven within an hour of use at least five times in the previous month.

Utah Department of Public Safety officials were unavailable for comment Thursday and Friday, but a 2015 DPS report showed that the number of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana had doubled in three years – in part due to increased testing, but the rise is notable given its coincidence with legalization in Colorado and other Western states.

While a February 2015 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established no link between the tetrahydrocannabinol – marijuana’s psychoactive component – and increased likelihood of a crash, Utah drivers risk prosecution weeks after THC’s effects have worn off under the state’s "metabolite statute." At least two Utah drivers in fatal crashes have been convicted this year for violating the statute.

That factor and other law enforcement questions created by the new law may cause headaches for Wendover, Utah – contiguous with the Nevada border town and home to parking lots for two casinos where customers might soon believe they legally possess the drug.

Mayor Mike Crawford said the city has decided not to renew its contract with the Tooele County sheriff and to re-establish its own shoestring police department starting, coincidentally, Jan. 1. His new force faces a new challenge on its first day.

"We’re going to have a lean department, and now we’ve got something else thrown at us," he said.

Utah became the second state to outlaw marijuana in 1914, and a majority of its residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose top-level First Presidency urged Nevadans to oppose the ballot initiative.

Residents of Monticello, Utah, can buy recreational pot less than an hour away, in Cortez, Colo., and those in St. George will soon find themselves two hours from a cluster of dispensaries near Las Vegas.

But for those on the Wasatch Front, the shortest drive is De Beque, Colo., more than four-and-a-half hours from downtown Salt Lake City and 60 miles past the border on Interstate 70. Grand Junction, Colo., and nearby Mesa County governments have prevented sales, a move Elko County officials seem inclined to emulate, if they are afforded the power.

State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, whose district includes Elko County, said he’s "scared to death" by the prospect of legal marijuana. The initiative passed with 54 percent of the vote but is unpopular outside of the state’s metropolitan areas, he said.

"Most of [those counties] are going to try to figure out how they can avoid having a dispensary," he said. Just how much latitude county and city governments will have is unclear, said he and other officials. The initiative says simply that it does not prohibit "a locality from adopting and enforcing local marijuana control measures pertaining to zoning and land use for marijuana establishments."

Elko County is allocated two licenses. West Wendover accounts for less than 10 percent of its population, but officials assume it’s the most likely local participant.

"As soon as it’s available," Guttry said, West "Wendover is going to be the one-stop shop for all of Utah."

Although the town has a moratorium on medical marijuana, its soon-to-be leader, Mayor-elect Daniel Corona, sees in marijuana a potential boon to the city’s coffers. Close to 85 percent of Wendover’s tourists hail from Salt Lake City, he said, and a recreational dispensary "would be a huge impact to the local economy. A lot of people in surrounding areas have shown an interest in it."

Crawford’s town has long been in the hard-luck position of housing low-income workers from West Wendover’s casinos without a cut of their employers’ profits, and many a casino customer has stumbled across the border for a night at Wendover’s Motel 6 while flouting the state’s open-container law, he said.

Now, West Wendover will be tempted by another source of income that could cause aggravation for its neighbor. Crawford thinks it will be hard to pass up. His brother Ted Crawford was mayor of Dundee, Ore., when recreational marijuana became legal in that state. He caught flak for resisting a moratorium, Mike Crawford said, but "when they got their first check, the tax was [so] big that everybody shut right up."

So, what’s the soonest a Utahn could legally buy recreational marijuana in West Wendover? Late 2017 or early 2018.

But that’s only if Nevada establishes regulations by this summer (it has until January 2018) and if the applicant is one of the medicinal license holders currently doing business near Las Vegas or Reno. It likely also would require the support of city and/or county officials.

Those officials might be inclined to keep the profits within the county, favoring a moratorium until 18 months have passed and a viable local applicant can apply. That approach would give them the ability to assess the drug’s impact elsewhere.

And it may never happen. Not only are county and city officials opposed to marijuana reform, but so are many of those who have supported President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign.

The Department of Justice has been hands off about enforcement under President Barack Obama, choosing to target the cartels that run the black market and ignore the enormous legal industry. It’s anyone’s guess what Trump will do.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: When Can Utahns Buy Pot In West Wendover? Maybe Late 2017, Maybe Never
Author: Matthew Piper
Contact: 801-257-8742
Photo Credit: John Locher
Website: The Salt Lake Tribune