Recreational Cannabis: The New Reality

May 22, 2017

Beginning July 1, Nevadans will have the ability to legally purchase recreational marijuana for the first time. But as that industry prepares to ramp up production and sales many questions remain. Who can use cannabis? Where can they use it? And how will the state regulate its new commodity?

Walking into a dispensary for the first time can be intimidating. Salespeople known as bud-tenders stand behind a counter that’s filled with various strains of cannabis, products like weed grinders and vape pens and even edibles – food made with THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high.

“So right now you’re inside the bud bar,” says Mikel Alvarez with Blüm Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Reno. “We’ve got nine stations. Every station has all of the products that we have.”

Blüm -- a chain with locations in Las Vegas and Oakland, opened its doors in Reno earlier this year. 

“They’re excited and they want it,” Alvarez says. “We have people coming in, at least 10 or 12 people a day that are looking to see if they can come in and buy and they don’t understand that they can’t buy yet.”

Earlier this month, the Nevada Tax Commission approved temporary regulations to start selling recreational marijuana on July 1. That's six months earlier than was required by the ballot initiative known as Question 2. Supporters of early sales argue this will help the industry recoup large, upfront investments while at the same time bringing a new stream of revenue into the state’s coffers.

“If we don’t have it up and running for them to be able to buy it, we’re just creating a huge black market,” says Las Vegas Democrat, Senator Tick Segerblom, an advocate for legalized marijuana in Nevada for years. “It’s already out there. It’s been out there, frankly, for years, but the sooner we can start to nip that in the bud the better.”

But rushing to create a recreational market may have a detrimental effect on Nevada’s other marijuana industry. Kristian Foden-Vencil has been covering this topic for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He says when Oregon began early recreational sales last year; it may have sounded the death knell for medical.

“The business side is moving more towards recreational marijuana,” Foden-Vencil says. “Businesses are saying that a year ago they were perhaps doing 50 percent medical, 50 percent recreational marijuana. Now, it’s more like 70 percent recreational, 30 percent medical.”

And of course, there is still the looming federal question. Consumption, production and distribution of marijuana, in all forms, remain federal crimes.

In recent years, eight states, now including Nevada, have based their entire legal defense of both medical and recreational cannabis sales on what has become known as the Cole Memorandum. Authored in 2009, the memo shifted the focus of the U.S. Justice Department away from prosecuting individuals or businesses that were operating legally under hazy state laws, creating a more hands-off approach to drug enforcement.

Since taking office, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sesions has made several remarks hinting at increased enforcement of federal marijuana laws. Speaking at a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in February, Sessions told attendees that legalizing pot leads to more crime.

“I, as you know, am dubious about marijuana,” Session says. “I guess states can pass whatever laws they choose, but I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store. I just don’t think that’s going to be good for us.”

The Justice Department has issued little clarification on Session’s comments, leaving officials in those eight states questioning whether the recreational sales industry will be a target. Last month, Republican members of the Nevada Legislature sent a letter to the Attorney General asking for guidance. Session’s remarks have also drawn the attention of members of Congress like Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

“We don’t know what it looks like, we haven’t seen it, we don’t know from our U.S. Attorney’s perspective what type of enforcement they’re going to engage in and I think we should,” says Cortez Masto. “I believe at the federal level they should respect those states that made the decision to  allow recreational or medical marijuana.”

Governor Brian Sandoval, on the other hand, met with the attorney general in April. He says he feels comfortable moving forward with the state’s plans.

“I told them that we are going to strictly regulate marijuana as much as possible,” says Sandoval. “I think he listened to that. I can’t speak for the attorney general, but I walked away from that meeting feeling good about where we are.”

And for the time being the state is moving full steam ahead.