Nevada’s first medical pot dispensary now open in Sparks

A first for Northern Nevada

‘IT’S AN HERB THAT HELPS PEOPLE’

Nevada’s very first medical marijuana dispensary, Silver State Relief, opened Friday in Sparks.

Possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in the state for more than 10 years. Dispensaries, however, only became legal as a result of a bill in 2013 Nevada Legislature, and the law allowing dispensaries to operate didn’t go into effect until April 2014.

Aron Swan is the general manager of Silver State Relief, and after almost two years of planning, registering, building and growing, he and his team at the dispensary are about to achieve their goal: to provide medicine to people who need it.

“It’s a plant,” he said. “It’s an herb that helps people.”

Swan said the opening has been highly anticipated in the community.

“We’ve received two or three emails and phone calls a day for the past few months asking when we’re going to be open,” Swan said.

Swan also said he received more than 150 job applications for positions at the dispensary. He has hired seven part-time people and says they may eventually become full-time depending on how busy the store gets. The hiring process includes extensive background checks, so Swan anticipates only having several employees to work the dispensary’s soft launch.

As a highly regulated industry, medical marijuana facilities face greater challenges than most businesses. For example, because medical marijuana is not federally approved, businesses can’t ship in plants from other states. Instead, Silver State Relief had to source its plants from local card holders, who are allowed to grow plants for personal use. Individual card holders, however, are not allowed to own more than 12 plants each.

Silver State Relief now possesses around 200 plants, brought in from all around Nevada, which they will use to grow future crops. Now that they have purchased the plants, they are not limited by how many they can grow in the future.

Because plants can take months to yield a crop, Swan said his dispensary’s initial offerings will be modest, with around 12-14 pounds of marijuana available on opening day. Patients are allowed to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period, but given that the store will have a slim supply, the dispensary will be limiting purchases to a half-ounce per transaction.

Swan said he hopes that the amount will keep patients in good supply until his team is able to harvest more, which will take around 60 days. He and his employees anticipate that dozens of strains will become available from their plants in the near future.

Strains of marijuana typically have quirky names, which make individual products more memorable. Silver State Relief will be initially offering six strains: Girl Scout Cookies, Skunk #1, Ghost OG, Purple Kush, Blue Dream and THC Snow. The strains will offer a variety of medicinal effects, Swan said, which dispensary workers can recommend based on the needs of the patient.

“The names might take away a little legitimacy (of treating marijuana like medicine), but that’s how people know the products in the industry,” Swan said.

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Building out a business

THERE ARE TWO PROPERTIES THAT MAKE UP SILVER STATE RELIEF’S POT ENTERPRISE

There are two properties that make up Silver State Relief’s pot enterprise: a dispensary and a grow facility. The dispensary, in the industrial area of Sparks on the corner of Greg Street and McCarran Boulevard, features concrete walls and a security door to separate patients from the products. The grow facility is an older warehouse that had to be retrofitted, including renovations and asbestos removal.

The warehouse is massive and currently mostly empty, save for a few rooms set aside for growing and storing marijuana. One larger room in the facility is set aside to eventually become a kitchen for making edibles. Swan said that he hopes the large open space will eventually be filled with plants, especially if recreational marijuana becomes legalized.

Silver State Relief also works with Nevada-based Certified Ag Lab and 374 Labs, both of which test cannabis to ensure that it complies with state regulations and is safe for consumption. Once a harvest is taken from the plants, it is tested for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels, which tell a customer how potent the marijuana is. At the dispensary, customers can request the final test results. On the black market, marijuana can sometimes have high levels of heavy metals or pesticides, and customers don’t always know what they’re consuming. Swan said that the testing process takes away that uncertainty.

Originally planning to open in late spring, then mid-July, Silver State Relief has had to push back its opening date several times. The most recent setback involved a new pesticide testing requirement that the state passed on June 30. Certified Ag Lab couldn’t accommodate the testing with its current equipment, so Silver State Relief had to turn to 374 Labs.

On the cultivation side of the business, Silver State Relief turned to a non-marijuana industry source for plant experts: former University of Nevada, Reno students who specialized in plant biochemistry. One of the hires, 28-year-old Daniel Hopper, recently earned his Ph.D. from the university where he spent time studying and growing wine grapes in the university’s horticulture labs. When Swan approached him to work at the cannabis cultivation facility, Hopper said he was intrigued by the opportunity.

Though he didn’t have experience with growing cannabis, Hopper had a strong background in plants as whole. He understands that individual cardholders may not know how to grow their own marijuana, even though they are allowed to, and he hopes to bring his expertise to helping them buy a cleaner, safer product.

“To be able to provide for people who can’t grow themselves is amazing,” Hopper said.

Sparking up in Sparks

‘WE EXPECTED A LOT OF PUSHBACK’

Last year, Sparks City Council voted to approve medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.

The council had to decide where production facilities and dispensaries would be allowed. State law dictates that marijuana dispensaries must be 300 feet away from community buildings and 1,000 feet away from schools and substance-abuse treatment centers. Officials decided to restrict marijuana facilities to commercial and industrial areas.

“We expected a lot of pushback (from residents), but we didn’t get any,” said city planner Karen Melby. “The people who showed up to meetings were in support of the dispensary being built.”

Part of that may have been because discussion about the dispensary came up in quiet code amendment agenda items.

Both the city and Silver State Relief wanted the dispensary’s location to be strategic for preventing crime. As a cash-only business, patients carry the risk of being targeted for robberies both on their way in and out of the building. As a result, the dispensary was placed in a highly visible location, making it easier for police to do drive-by observations to make sure everything is OK at the store.

The Sparks City Council also debated how late dispensaries should be allowed to remain open, originally saying 6 p.m. but eventually extending it to 7 p.m. The city has found the accommodation of the medical marijuana industry somewhat of a challenge. There are many procedures and processes that have to be in place to ensure a legitimate operation.

“The hardest part for all of us is that it’s all new,” Melby said.

The businesses that share the shopping center with Silver State Relief aren’t sure what to expect once the dispensary opens either. There is a Capriotti’s sandwich shop in the next building, and owner Zach Fedele is already hopeful that dispensary customers will bring new business to his storefront as well.

“Right now we’re closed on Sunday and have shorter hours on Saturday, but we may adjust our hours depending on how busy (the dispensary) gets during the weekend,” Fedele said.

He said that he believes the dispensary will overall be a positive thing for the Sparks community both medically and financially.

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Unprecedented access

‘I GET THE STIGMA OF THIS BUSINESS’

The approved conditions for medical marijuana in Nevada include AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, PTSD, wasting, severe pain, seizures, severe nausea and persistent muscle spasms such as those from multiple sclerosis. Severe pain is the most common reported condition for cardholders, according to the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

Part of the dispensary’s duties will be to educate patients about the benefits of medical marijuana. Swan said that he has received calls from the spouses of sick people who have exhausted all other options.

“I get the stigma of this business,” Swan said. “But there are people out there who need this medicine. Pharmaceuticals are not working for them.”

One Reno local, 22-year-old Alan Carsey, reached out to the Reno Gazette-Journal over email to share what access to medical marijuana will mean to him. As someone born with Tourette syndrome, Carsey deals with uncontrollable muscle spasms all over his body on a daily basis.

“I’ve had past doctor-prescribed medication that made me drool and see different colored flying orbs darting around,” Carsey wrote. “It has left me very afraid of treating my Tourette syndrome with pharmaceuticals. Having local storefront access to medical marijuana will be revolutionary in my life. It will give me access to have different professionally grown strains that will help ease my nervous system and limit my tics.”

Doing things by the book

‘THERE’S A LOT OF SNAKE OIL IN THIS INDUSTRY’

To register a medical marijuana establishment in Nevada, the business must fill out a 45-page application. The application evaluates a wide range of categories, including the owners’ financial resources; experience and academic background; community impact; and establishment plans for organization, education, security and transportation. The application timeline takes around six months to go from submitting the application to issuing a provisional certificate to the business.

Silver State Relief has worked with a firm in Colorado called Denver Relief Consulting, which advises marijuana businesses all around the country on how to get started in the industry.

Kayvan Khalatbari, founding partner at Denver Relief Consulting, advised the company during its earliest stages of development, and Swan attributes Silver State Relief’s head start to much of the help that the firm provided for paperwork and planning.

“There’s a lot of snake oil in this industry,” Khalatbari said. “A lot sounds good on the front end, but there are people who take advantage. We have an incredible network of resources for businesses and experience with developing operating procedures.”

Denver Relief Consulting helps marijuana businesses work with local governments to submit relevant applications and build advisory boards. Nevada was an interesting case, Khalatbari said, because the state awarded preliminary licenses to pretty much everyone who applied.

“Nevada essentially said, ‘We’re going to let the market figure this out and see who rises to the top and who fails,’ ” Khalatbari said.

Obtaining subsequent permits, passing inspections and the sheer cost of building out a business, however, keep the barriers to entry high.

Swan declined to reveal the total cost of starting up, but he did say that the total sum was around double what he expected it would be. Equipment, regulations, paperwork, new hires and processing plants are all costs that added up quickly.

“We want to do things by the book,” Swan said.

In Nevada, medical marijuana is subject to a standard sales tax plus a 2 percent excise tax. In states where recreational marijuana use is legal, the product is often subject to much higher taxes, sometimes reaching more than 30 percent. Recreational marijuana in Nevada may be put before voters in late 2016. If approved, Nevada would become the fifth state to fully legalize the drug, after Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

For the time being, local dispensaries are looking to the future, but mostly focusing on the present. Other medical marijuana businesses are set to open in quick succession throughout the end of 2015, with one dispensary in Reno opening as early as mid-August. For Silver State Relief, being the first medical marijuana dispensary to successfully open in Nevada has not been an easy feat. But all of the planning and preparation will have been worth it on the first day that customers walk through the door.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” Swan said. “We don’t have anyone to gauge ourselves against, but it’s exciting as well.”

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