Monday, Feb. 29, 2016 | 2:01 a.m.
Reclining leather seats, a 42-inch television screen and stencils of bright red marijuana leaves illuminate the back of 420 Tours’ sport utility vehicle. The SUV, along with a 30-foot bus, are used by Nevada’s first cannabis tour company, which takes people looking for a medical marijuana card and legal pot from street corner to dispensary in less than an hour.
Using the app EaseMD, 420 Tours founder Drew Gennuso connects pre-screened passengers who have a California ID or U.S. passport with a California doctor, live over video chat, in the back seat of the “Cannabus” SUV. The patients, frequently picked up on the Strip, describe their symptoms, receive a doctor’s recommendation printed on the spot and are taken to a Las Vegas dispensary of their choice.
“It’s a way to impact and support the medicinal cannabis industry,” Gennuso said. “We just want to educate people and make them aware of the options available.”
And it’s perfectly legal.
Nearly three years after landmark legislation legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada, patients and licensed business owners remain trapped in a grueling application process that keeps legal pot unattainable to many in the state.
And while Nevada patients and retailers stumble through the state’s red tape, entrepreneurs are cashing in on Nevada’s reciprocity laws, which allow out-of-state patients to play here by their own states’ more lenient rules.
A four-step process
While some states allow patients to buy medical marijuana with just a doctor’s note, residents of Nevada must complete a four-step process that can take as long as four months to complete.
Step 1: Print, fill out and mail a Nevada Medical Marijuana Registry request form. The application can be obtained online at the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health website but must be mailed back to the agency with a $25 check. There is no email or online registration option.
Step 2: Wait for health division to mail back your form. If it’s approved, make an appointment with a doctor for a physician’s recommendation.
Step 3: Mail back the completed, approved Nevada Medical Marijuana Registry form to the Division of Public and Behavioral Health with a $75 check. The state will process the form after running a background check and mail it back to you.
Step 4: If you were approved for a patient card, take your letter of approval to a state Department of Motor Vehicles office. The DMV will process your application and mail your medical marijuana card to your home.
The Nevada Legislature legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in 2013. Although lawmakers undeniably had fiscal considerations in mind — the marijuana industry is incredibly lucrative — they wanted to make it easier for patients with cancer, AIDS, seizures and other serious conditions to find legal relief from pain and chronic suffering. Medical marijuana itself was legalized in 2000 in Nevada, but patients had to grow their own supply and had few legal options for obtaining seeds or clones.
Despite the intent of the law — largely to help Nevadans — many marijuana entrepreneurs are targeting out-of-state tourists as their customers, not locals.
Medical marijuana cards in Nevada are valid for one year, but because of the state’s lengthy processing time, by the time many patients receive their card, it often is valid for only eight or nine months.
“Just in case you haven’t waited long enough for your card, you have that much less time before you have to reapply,” said Andrew Jolley, owner of the Source dispensary.
Barbara Berg, 52, is one such patient. Berg, of Las Vegas, said she waited four months to receive her card from the state.
An IT specialist in the casino industry, Berg said she smokes marijuana twice daily to treat a tumor on her pancreas. It’s a safer way to manage her pain than doctor-prescribed morphine, she said, and her tumor has shrunk in the four weeks since she started smoking.
“It’s just unnecessary for people to wait that long when you’re using marijuana for medicine,” she said.
Nevada residents looking for legal pot are subject to a four-step “cooling-off” process that takes months to complete. To receive a medical marijuana card, patients must complete paperwork from the state, obtain a prescription from a licensed doctor and wait months for their application to be approved. The process ends with a trip to the DMV.
In other pot-friendly states, such as California, Washington and Oregon, patients need only a doctor’s note to load up at dispensaries, including those in Nevada.
So while Nevadans wait months for medical marijuana cards, reciprocity laws mean tourists can walk right into any dispensary in the valley and buy legal pot. That has opened the door for weed tourists from across the country and has enabled businesses such as Gennuso’s to thrive.
Nevada in 2015 became the first state to allow nonresident reciprocity, giving medical marijuana cardholders from other states the legal ability to buy medical marijuana in Nevada.
The reciprocity law, which has attracted “thousands” of out-of-state patients, is part of a move to increase tourism, said state Sen. Tick Segerblom, who championed the medical marijuana cause in the Nevada Legislature.
“We encourage the convention authority to promote that for our visitors,” Segerblom said.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, however, does not have medical marijuana in its marketing plans, spokesman Jeremy Handel said.
“We focus on broadly marketing the general brand of Las Vegas,” Handel said. “We don’t normally trickle to that level.”
Since opening Oct. 31, Gennuso’s business has skyrocketed. 420 Tours averages 10 to 15 passenger-patients per week. The number climbs during events and conventions.
“CES, March Madness and the Champs Expo are the top three on our list,” Gennuso said.
Oregon resident Sean Rhodes, 26, paid Gennuso $120 last month for a 420 Tours SUV ride from the Palms to Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary, 2520 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas. Though marijuana is legal recreationally in his home state, Rhodes didn’t want to risk sneaking pot through airport security. Plus, he wanted to try something new — marijuana grown in Nevada — during his three-day trip here.
“I just wanted to smoke while I was down here,” Rhodes said. “We weren’t sure if it was legal or not to bring.”
During a 5-mile ride from the Palms to Inyo, Rhodes told a California doctor he had back pain and was given a recommendation for medical marijuana. The entire process took about five minutes.
“You have to say some kind of pain or insomnia or something like that,” Rhodes said. “Just give them something.”
At Inyo, co-owner David Goldwater greets patients at the door before leading them to a windowless room filled with more than a dozen showcases of chocolate-infused THC edibles and marijuana buds with names like Grape Stomper, Liberty Haze and Fire Alien Super Skunk.
Goldwater said almost half of his clients are from out of state.
“People just don’t want to travel with their meds because it’s still a federal crime,” Goldwater said. “Why take the risk when you don’t have to?”
Brannon Zimbelman, owner of The Travel Joint, also relies primarily on out-of-state customers. Zimbelman runs a marijuana-friendly travel website where users can book flights, reserve hotels and find “420 accommodations” such as dispensaries.
“Part of our job is bringing people to the front door of the dispensary,” Zimbelman said. “If people want to do the tour thing, they can.”
Zimbelman, whose website includes menus from local dispensaries and interviews with dispensary owners, estimated that at least 95 percent of his customers come from outside of Nevada.
“It’s big business when you can get the right people,” he said.
THE WAITING GAME
Some dispensaries, such as the Source, 2550 S. Rainbow Blvd., Las Vegas, rely mostly on Nevada cardholders as customers. Owner Andrew Jolley said about 80 percent of his clients are local.
But Jolley said the dispensary, which opened Dec. 10, gets at least five to 10 prospective Nevada patients who walk in each day, asking how to apply for a medical marijuana card. When a staffer hands the person a flyer describing the process of obtaining a card, many of the potential customers walk away dejected, Jolley said.
“You have a patient who wants to get medicine, they have a qualifying condition, they meet the rules, yet they’re discouraged from getting a card,” Jolley said. “It’s so lengthy and complicated. You can see they’re just deflated.”
“I think making people go through all of these hurdles, ending in a trip to the DMV, is despicable,” he added.
Inyo’s Goldwater sees a similar pattern. As many as a 10 prospective patients without cards walk through Inyo’s doors each day hoping to buy legal weed, Goldwater said.
Nevada’s medical marijuana laws are modeled after Arizona’s. There, patients must obtain a doctor’s recommendation and file an application with the state Department of Health Services to receive a medical marijuana card. But Arizona residents can submit their doctor’s note online, and patient cards are mailed within seven days.
Nevada law requires two additional steps and takes nearly three months longer to complete, at minimum.
While Nevada law states that a medical marijuana patient’s application should be processed in fewer than 30 days, it almost always takes longer, said Pam Graber, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health. The process, which includes a background check, often takes state officials 33 to 35 days to finish, Graber said. And that’s for only a portion of what’s required. That timeframe doesn’t include the time needed to process a prospective patient’s original application request to the state, nor does it account for getting a signed physician statement or making a trip to the DMV.
Lengthy process for business owners
Medical marijuana business license holders say the process to receive state and local medical marijuana certificates is grueling.
“Literally thousands of pages and it took a year to complete,” Las Vegas dispensary owner Andrew Jolley said.
Alicia Darrow, chief operations manager of the Oakland-based Blum dispensary, which has state-issued certificates to open three Southern Nevada stores in 2016, said it cost more than $20,000 just to print the necessary paperwork for Blum executives to file company applications in Nevada. David Goldwater, co-owner of the Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary, said he and his business partners also spent tens of thousands of dollars on paperwork — “a stack of papers that if placed on the floor, would probably stack chest-high,” Goldwater said.
With at least $250,000 in capital required by law for each state medical marijuana establishment registration certificate, securing a stake in Nevada’s marijuana industry requires both a hefty bank account and plenty of patience.
Dispensary owners described a process that lasted at least 18 months from the time they started their application to when they opened for business.
Despite the time commitment, finances and bureaucracy, the owners said they appreciated the process, and even more in retrospect.
“It was a grueling process, but at the end of the day, it washed out a bunch of people who were not qualified to operate one of these businesses,” Jolley said.
“It’s a lot of work,” Darrow added. “But it’s important to make sure businesses in this industry know what they’re doing.”
“The difference is Arizona has so little overhead,” said Dr. Suzanne Sisley, an industry researcher and former professor at the University of Arizona. “There are very few human beings involved in the process, because it’s all online. Nevada does just the opposite, and it takes much longer.”
Segerblom said expediting Nevada’s card application process was a priority. He said he hoped an online system would be in place by the end of March.
“When people get their cards faster, it brings in more tax revenue,” Segerblom said. “Spend a few bucks on it now, it’ll come back tenfold in the future.”
SETTING THE STANDARD
Segerblom said Nevada’s “structured” state processes of issuing medical marijuana cards and business registration certificates were made difficult by design.
“That’s the whole purpose, to make sure we have people with genuinely enough resources so they don’t do something wrong,” Segerblom said. “We don’t want the mafia getting involved in this.”
But Segerblom, a Las Vegas attorney, admitted that inadequate funding at the state level has left people waiting too long for patient cards.
“It’s a multistep process, and it’s a nightmare,” said Segerblom, a Democrat.
Three full-time staffers and four contracted employees process medical marijuana card applications at the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, and an additional eight part-time contractors were hired to help with a surge in card requests last year, Graber said. A total of 13,561 Nevadans had medical marijuana cards at the end of 2015, compared with 8,055 in 2014.
Still, Segerblom said he wished the process were faster and more digital. Above all, the senator wants to allow patients to submit their application request form and doctor’s recommendation online.
With a petition on the 2016 ballot to make recreational marijuana legal in Nevada, the problem soon could resolve itself.
On Nov. 8, Nevadans will vote on Initiative Petition 1, which would allow state residents age 21 or older to buy one ounce or less of marijuana for recreational use. If passed, the law could wipe out the need for medical marijuana cards and the waiting that comes with them. The measure would go into effect by Jan. 1, 2018.
Many in the medical marijuana industry say they hope and believe the proposal will pass.
“If you look at the direction our country is going, I think it’s very likely that Nevada will allow for adult use,” the Source’s Jolley said.
“I really think it’s going to happen,” Republican state Sen. Patricia Farley said. “You look at national polls, and it’s very popular in Nevada.”
UNLV political science professor David Damore, who has no stake in the industry, predicted the measure had a “pretty good” chance of passing.
With initiatives regarding background checks and firearm sales also on the ballot this year, 2016 will be a litmus test for a Nevada’s transition to a more socially liberal state, Damore said.
“Nevada hasn’t always been open to that hippie culture,” he said. “But recreational marijuana could help change that.”
Nevada’s pot industry, worth at least $100 million now, would skyrocket with recreational adult use, Segerblom said.
“It’s hard to say how much, but there’s no question it’ll bring in big money for the state,” Segerblom said.
If passed, the measure initially would limit recreational business licenses to owners of existing medical marijuana facilities. But after 18 months, more licenses would become available, allowing new dispensaries and business owners to enter the industry.
“The goal is to eventually regulate marijuana like alcohol,” Segerblom said.
Regardless of whether marijuana becomes legal for recreational use in Nevada, the current medical-only setup is poised for its biggest year of growth. With dozens of medical marijuana business licenses pending in Clark County, Las Vegas and Henderson, the number of legal pot establishments in the valley easily could quadruple by the end of the 2016, Segerblom said.
“There’s only about 20 percent of the available licenses actually being used for open businesses at this point,” Segerblom said. “It’s just getting started.”
And while the medical marijuana industry thrives, those in favor of legal recreational pot are salivating at its potential, especially in Southern Nevada.
Las Vegas “will soon be the marijuana capital of the United States,” said Zimbelman, owner of the Travel Joints. “We have everything, from the Strip to all-you-can-eat buffets. Las Vegas is built for it.”
Open dispensaries in Nevada
Euphoria Wellness, 7780 S. Jones Blvd., Suite 105, Las Vegas
Inyo Fine Cannabis, 2520 S. Maryland Parkway, Suite 2, Las Vegas
Nevada Pure, 4380 Boulder Highway, Las Vegas
The Apothecary Shoppe, 4240 W. Flamingo Road, Suite 100, Las Vegas
The Source, 2550 S. Rainbow Blvd., Suites 8 and 9, Las Vegas
Nevada Wellness Center, 3200 S. Valley View Blvd., Las Vegas
Las Vegas Releaf, 2244 Paradise Road, Las Vegas
Nevada Medical Marijuana, 3195 St. Rose Parkway, Suite 212, Henderson
Oasis Medical Cannabis, 1800 Industrial Road, Las Vegas
Sahara Wellness, 420 E. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas
Essence, 5765 W. Tropicana Ave., Las Vegas
Nevada Medical Marijuana, 1975 S. Casino Drive, Laughlin
Kanna, 5398 Sun Valley Blvd., Sun Valley
Sierra Wellness Connection, 1605 E. Second St., Suite 103, Reno
Silver State Relief, 175 E. Greg St., Sparks
There are 43 pending medical marijuana business licenses in Clark County, and more than a dozen more pending in Las Vegas, Henderson and Reno. There are eight production facilities, 21 cultivation facilities and five testing labs operating in Clark County.