Las Vegas police and federal agents converged on the annual HempCon expo along with throngs of others this past weekend. Unfortunately they were not there to enjoy the three-day festival. Las Vegas Metro Police and the DEA arrested 10 people in all throughout the event.
HempCon holds conventions pretty much anywhere that is friendly to cannabis, and is meant to be an educational and informative event where those in the cannabis industry can mix and mingle. It also gives vendors, many of whom only have an online presence, a chance to meet their customers in person, and other cannabis companies a chance to show off the latest goods and woo new customers.
This year’s HempCon was busier than others. From Friday to Sunday, law enforcement shut down five vendor booths, arrested 10 people, and cited three others on charges including drug possession, possession with intent to sell, and transporting a controlled substance.
According to police, metro narcotics officers and HempCon officials had met prior to the event to discuss what would and what would not be allowed at the expo. Event organizers in turn told attendees that state laws would be enforced, and basically everyone had to be on their best behavior.
As the law reads now, Nevada only allows medical use of marijuana by patients with state issued cards. However it is illegal to sell marijuana without a dispensary license, and it is also illegal to smoke in public.
Police were definitely there in force. Many in attendance described seeing police dogs, undercover officers, and even a team of officers and DEA agents on the roof who were apparently trying to spot people smoking in public.
The arrests outraged event organizers who felt singled out and targeted, and some attendees said they left patients frightened and confused as Nevada’s first legal dispensaries prepare to open.
Jason Sturtsman, a patient advocate and owner of a medical marijuana growing operation, wondered whether that’s because police know how much public attitudes toward marijuana have shifted.
“It just seems like a waste of resources,” said Sturtsman, who was not at the event but heard about the arrests.
The convention started out on a bad note and things progressively got worse as the weekend went on.
On Friday, officers arrested some people who were selling marijuana, said Kurt Duchac, a board member of WECAN. Duchac said those arrests were understandable, since it’s illegal to sell without a license.
But on Saturday, he said, officers started arresting patients who were peacefully using marijuana in their cars. And on Sunday, a SWAT vehicle showed up and officers were on the roof of the building.
“They were targeting patients, people for simply having it on them,” Duchac said. “They were running dogs through there.”
Inside, Duchac said, officers were “trashing” booths and ripping open boxes looking for drugs. People gathered around to watch, with some filming police and yelling at them.
“It was ugly,” Duchac said.
A message posted earlier in the week on the HempCon Facebook page lamented on the unfortunate events that took place over the weekend.
“We deeply regret the unfortunate police activity during the Las Vegas HempCon over the weekend of May 15-17. It was a blow to our vendors, the attendees, the community as a whole, and to us as well. It is sad that our industry is subject to such indiscriminate and prejudicial behavior by law enforcement, but we as a community will PERSEVERE and not let our forward momentum be derailed by them.”
An indicator of problems to come? Sturtsman thinks so, as he says police crackdowns could pose challenges, since soon-to-open legal dispensaries are expecting many of their customers to be from out of state. And some of those patients might not realize using a legal drug is outlawed in public places.
“I think it’s going to be a growing problem in Las Vegas when these dispensaries open up … where can these individuals consume cannabis in a safe place?” he said.