Rural Nevada Towns, Counties Slow To Adopt Pot

May 2, 2018

A vast majority of Nevada's cannabis dispensaries are concentrated in either Clark or Washoe Counties. There's also a handful in Fallon, Carson City and Pahrump– as well as a few others on tribal land, but cannabis retailers have yet to open a shop in most of rural Nevada.

Wendover Will - a sign created for the now-defunct Stateline Casino in 1952 -- waves to passersby driving by on I-80.
Credit Paul Boger

It’s a windy afternoon in West Wendover, Nevada, and mayor, Daniel Corona, is standing in the middle of the town’s industrial park. There’s not much here, a couple small businesses take up a few lots. It’s also going to be the home of the area’s first marijuana dispensary.

"Obviously, there's not a lot of development so far," says Corona. "So, a lot of this land is still ripe for the taking."

West Wendover’s not big. Roughly 4,400 people live in the town straddling the Nevada-Utah state line. On the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, the nearest cities are Elko to the west and Salt Lake City an hour-and-a-half to the east. It’s that proximity that Corona is hoping to cash in on.

"We'll be the lone city in Elko County that will be allowing a medical dispensary. We have a ton of interest from people in Elko [and] as far away as even Battle Mountain. I've heard people in Winnemucca say they plan on driving out here if we got a dispensary even though Sparks is a little bit closer for them."

West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona stands looking out over the town's industrial park.
Credit Paul Boger

Pot is quickly becoming cemented as big business in Nevada. According to the state department of taxation, retailers have brought in more than $263 million in revenue since last July – exceeding expectations. Of that, the state gets a 10 percent cut of retail sales and 15 percent of the wholesale market. Cities get a flat three percent. 

While that may not sound like a lot, for some rural communities, like West Wendover, it could be a windfall.

"If we have a dispensary here, it not only gives us a bit more money to maybe hire some more officers or do some prevention programs at the school to teach children about the danger of these hard drugs like opioids, but it also takes away some of the power from the drug dealers."

"I don't know, we don't know if there's going to be enough benefit in revenues to counter the social impact," says Elko Mayor Chris Johnson.

Elko Mayor Chris Johnson poses outside Elko City Hall.
Credit Heather Kennison / Elko Daily Free Press

Earlier this year, leaders in both the city and county of Elko took steps to ban cannabis sales within city limits or the unincorporated county. Johnson says the sudden societal acceptance of cannabis has had an impact on teens in the area using pot.

"Call it coincidence -- I mean I won't make the argument but call it coincidence -- since the legalization of marijuana the amount of possession and the issues that are happening in the school has risen dramatically."

And it’s not just recreational sales that are banned in Elko. Due to a moratorium on licensing, there’s essentially a de facto prohibition on medical as well. That’s left some patients in the lurch, forcing them to drive several hours to the nearest dispensary.

Those patients include Jo Reid who suffers from osteoarthritis. She regularly drives nearly five hours one-way to Reno to buy pot.

Jo Ried suffers from osteoarthritis. She regularly has to drive five hours to Reno to pick-up the cannabis she uses to alleviate pain.
Credit Paul Boger

"I have to go at least every two months to resupply and there is definitely a concern because it's still kind of illegal,” Reid says."I mean, I don't speed or anything but on the off-chance I got stopped for whatever police might stop me for, well, it's in my car. That's always a worry."

For Reid, a dispensary in West Wendover would be a lot closer -- only an hour-and-a-half away. But for some West Wendover residents like Rose Lendell, the dispensary may exacerbate other problems facing the town.

"We have a drug problem here already, and it's a gateway drug to other drugs. Because we're on the highway a lot of people bring drugs here."

The dispensary in West Wendover isn’t a done deal. In recent weeks, the mayor and city council have gone back and forth. Either way, pot sales in rural Nevada, aren’t likely to make a huge difference on the state’s bottom line. But for local governments, that may be a different story.