Las Vegas has changed, folks. I couldn't believe how much since I last visited. And I'm not talking about the glitzy hotels or the towering slot machines or the raving nightlife. I'm talking about changes you can see on the airport concourse two minutes after you deplane. I'm talking about medical marijuana. OMG.
Could this be Any Florida Airport in 2020?
You know how you used to walk down the moving walkway toward baggage claim, past casino show ads, and you'd hear a flutter of jokes from resident comedians? Now the jokes are gone. Most of the show ads are still there, but the posters directing visitors to medical marijuana will knock your eyes out.
Ads for businesses like Las Vegas ReLeaf, a 3,700-square-foot "pharm" that bills itself as "the Bellagio of dispensaries." Or, if you prefer, set your GPS for Dr. Green Relief. Or, Sahara Wellness. Or, The Travel Joint.
On the other hand, once you reach the strip, you can always keep an eye out for the "Cannabus," run by 420 Tours, Las Vegas' first cannabis tour company. It's more an SUV than a bus, but its promise is, "We take people looking for a medical marijuana card and legal pot from street corner to dispensary in less than an hour."
I have to admit, it sounds wilder and woolier than it actually is. Las Vegas isn't Colorado or California or Oregon yet. There are strict rules about how dispensaries can advertise in the city limits, for one thing. But it has a proposition on the November ballot similar to United for Care's in Florida. That's all cannabis entrepreneurs are waiting for to put doctors in charge and get the government out. Then, they say, medical marijuana will be snuggled in right next to -- probably even part of -- every corner of the Vegas tourist scene. They are so ready to set up shop in a bigger way. You can feel it in the air.
I saw one ad on television -- shot in what amounted to a greenhouse, or a grow house, with all the "plant attendants" wearing white coats, soft music playing in the background. Strangest ad I ever saw. Memorable, somehow.
At any rate, right now it's tough for long-suffering Nevadans with conditions that might be helped with pot to get it. They have to stumble through the state's months-long red tape to get a medical marijuana card. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are cashing in on the state’s reciprocity laws. In 2015 Nevada became the first state to allow nonresident reciprocity, giving medical marijuana cardholders from other states the legal ability to buy medical marijuana in Nevada.
To explain further:
The Las Vegas Sun reports the Nevada Legislature legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in 2013. Although lawmakers undeniably had fiscal considerations in mind, 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 had been legalized in 2000 in Nevada, but it was pretty much a bust. Patients had to grow their own supply and had few legal options for obtaining seeds or clones.
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,” Andrew Jolley, owner of the Source dispensary, told the Sun.
While Nevada law states that a medical marijuana patient’s application should be processed in fewer than 30 days, it almost always takes longer, explains 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.
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 completing the last step -- making 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.
The lawmaker who championed the medical marijuana cause in the Nevada Legislature, Sen. Tick Segerblom, told the Sun the reciprocity law, which has attracted “thousands” of out-of-state patients, is part of a move to increase tourism in the state.
“We encourage the convention authority to promote that for our visitors,” Segerblom said.
Why would residents of California or Oregon buy their meds in Las Vegas instead of at home? One dispenser claims it's because "people just don’t want to travel with their meds because it’s still a federal crime."
In some ways, I understand casino magnate Sheldon Adelson's hostility toward medical marijuana. He's a very savvy billionaire who can see the future. He doesn't want visitors spending their money in dispensaries instead of his casinos. Anyway, by Nevada law, casinos aren’t allowed to get into the cannabis business, and so therefore have little incentive to back legalized marijuana.
Many people are nevertheless optimistic that soon enough, Nevada will allow everyone -- locals and visitors alike -- to use marijuana. That includes longtime local marijuana activist Jason Sturtsman. The International Business Times writes that while Sturtsman advocates for patient rights as a part of the organization Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada and is lobbying to keep testing requirements reasonable as a member of the state’s Independent Lab Advisory Committee, he’s also working as a part-time manager at Las Vegas ReLeaf and welcomes the Las Vegas-ification of cannabis. Even if that means exacting regulations and an industry dominated by the rich and powerful, he believes the payoff nationwide will be worth it.
Oh, yes, and there are 43 pending medical marijuana business licenses in Clark County, and more than a dozen more pending in the county seat Las Vegas and in Henderson and Reno. There are eight production facilities, 21 cultivation facilities and five testing labs operating in Clark County.
I walked the Strip this past weekend, from MGM Grand to Harrah's, and at more than half a dozen spots along the way, smoke from the weed -- legal or not -- was clearly wafting in the air. I make that walk every trip, and the unmistakable aroma of cannabis there, in cold light of day, was a first in my experience.
I felt as if I were getting a vision of things to come -- the changing face of tourism -- not just in Sin City, but eventually in Florida. Florida is a tourism state, too. In fact, a state with more cities than Nevada to attract out-of-state visitors, many of them carrying notes from their doctors. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Tampa and Orlando for starters. Walt Disney World might be a family-friendly Magic Kingdom now, but I can see it developing another identity down the road. And it has nothing to do with casinos.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith