By Michael Bodley | News21
Published Aug. 15, 2015
LAS VEGAS – First-time customers receive on-the-house starter kits packed with lighters, pre-rolled joints and grams of pot. Veterans and seniors get cannabis at a discount. Eight punches on a loyalty card earn customers a free one-eighth of an ounce.
But as a long-awaited legal sales system of dispensaries inches closer to opening in Nevada, the days of delivery are numbered, according to operators and outside observers.
Nevada voters legalized medical marijuana in 2000, but the state didn’t start to set up a system to sell it until 2013. Patients had few options: They could grow at home, turn to delivery services or rely on traditional drug dealers in the black market.
Such delivery operations field phoned or emailed orders and dispatch drivers to the fountains of the Bellagio resort or to the golden glimmer of the Mirage, as well as less-glamorous doorsteps off the Strip.
Online advertisements ask for donations, not payments – from patients, not customers. Owners said they accept out-of-state medical marijuana cards, too. Owners said business could be better if they didn’t limit their patient numbers to avoid state scrutiny.
“There is the very large possibility that this could stop any day in the near future,” said Alex, the owner of Las Vegas-based Emerald Avenue, who asked that his last name not be used to avoid prosecution. “I've just been doing my best to save the little money that I can.”
The businesses are illegal. Emerald Avenue and dozens like it throughout Nevada are everything the state shuns: unregulated, untested and untaxed. A spokeswoman for Nevada’s Medical Marijuana Program scoffed at self-imposed delivery safeguards, such as requiring clients to show medical marijuana cards.
“It’s a problem,” spokeswoman Pam Graber said. “I have no idea what their thinking is, but we’re appalled that their audaciousness takes them to the point of asking for one of our medical marijuana cards from the customers. The whole thing is incredulous.”
A U.S. district court judge in 2012 threw out charges against one delivery operator, saying the state’s then-failure to set up a dispensary system was unconstitutional. But Nevada’s Supreme Court intervened, and in later rulings, the courts allowed charges brought against delivery owners to stand.
Though some delivery services have survived with a low profile, operators are bracing for a law enforcement crackdown once the first dispensary opens its doors.
“Once (dispensaries) come online, there’s not going to be any defense because people will have a legitimate place to purchase from that meets the state’s guidelines,” said John Wright, founder of the Las Vegas-based Wright Law Group, who has represented clients in the medical marijuana industry.
Police departments around Las Vegas downplay the problem. They said they’re more concerned with stopping large-scale drug traffickers and other crime.
Officer Michael Rodriguez, a spokesman with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said delivery services haven’t been a “huge issue” so far.
But as dispensaries open, officers said things could change. For now, their focus is on developing a plan for policing legal dispensaries and protecting the pounds of product and wads of cash that come with them.
Alex, the owner of Emerald Avenue, said he takes a risk of prosecution each day in his dealings with a clientele some 400 strong. An oft-updated Leafly listing advertises “Munchies Monday,” with edibles discounted to $5, daily referral deals and a happy hour special, which gets going at 4:20 p.m.
Alex broke into the business while working as a delivery driver for Jimmy John’s, slinging grams in between sandwiches sales. He said business has been steady since he took over as head of Emerald Avenue after a former friend who got him started called it quits. Now, the boss employs up to a half-dozen drivers to push up to a pound of pot on a “good day.” Including edible sales, the business can rake in up to $4,000 in “donations.”
Still, Alex said that even if he wanted to go legitimate, he couldn’t afford it. Total application costs for dispensaries in Clark County exceeded $1 million for many hopefuls, including the cost of leasing a property. The business has barriers, he said, which “prevent the regular guy from even having a chance to be above board.”
The barriers were intentional, designed by legislators to filter out operators who couldn’t afford to meet the law’s stringent standards, said state Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom, a Democrat based in Las Vegas. Clark County, for one, required applicants for dispensaries to demonstrate at least $250,000 in liquid assets.
“We wanted to have the best investors involved in this thing, because our biggest fear was going to be somebody that doesn't have enough cash,” Segerblom said. “And that's going to incentivize them to try to do something illegal or cut corners. And we wanted to have the best.”
Alex said he plans to keep peddling strains like Green Crack and Double Dream to patients – as long as he can get away with it.
“I sort of feel like this underground business is resistance against how they're treating it here in the state,” he said. “We're not millionaires. It's not like this is a huge money deal.”
Delivery operators said they’ve survived in such a hostile environment by keeping a low profile and taking precautions.
Like Emerald Avenue, another delivery operation, Club 800, prizes discretion in dealing with customers. Even after legal dispensaries open, not everyone will want to shop for pot in public.
“(Patients) aren't trying to go and drive and shop like they're at the Apple store for weed,” said Jeff, a representative of Club 800 who asked that his last name not be used to avoid prosecution. “This is a medicine. They want it delivered to use discreetly.”
For now, delivery operations carefully carry on.
“Think of a pizza man,” Jeff said. “It’s the same damn thing. We just deliver pot.”