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Nevada’s first medical marijuana dispensary opens in Reno on July 31, 2015.
Andy Barron

Now that Nevada has the green light to move forward with its early start recreational marijuana program, it could set the national record for the fastest turnaround of retail reefer. 

In a rush for kush, the state is attempting to power forward with recreational marijuana sales in a mere eight months since voters approved Question 2 in November. 

That’s faster than any other state so far. 

The ballot question made it kosher for anyone over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of weed and up to an eighth-ounce of concentrate, but the actual sale and purchase of recreational marijuana will not be legal until July 1.

Under the recently approved early start program, existing medical marijuana dispensaries that are in “good standing” will be eligible to sell recreational marijuana.

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“We have so many people coming in every day and calling in every day asking when we’ll have (recreational marijuana),” said Bobbie Macfarlane, assistant manager of Sierra Wellness Connection, a dispensary in Reno. 

Nevada, first in line

California, Maine and Massachusetts also voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana, but the Silver State will be the first of the pool to take the plunge into legal sales. 

California is expected to be about six months behind Nevada, starting its sales in January 2018, same as Maine. Sales in Massachusetts, where adults can have more than double the Nevada limit, won’t begin until mid-2018.

A main incentive for the early start program indeed stems from Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget request, which includes $70 million from recreational marijuana taxes over the next two years to support education. Officials also want to squash the thriving black market, since possessing recreational pot has been legal since January.

 

“Nevada’s (system) is much more advanced than smaller states. You already have rigorous testing and security, two of the biggest challenges,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Denver-based Marijuana Policy Project. 

The push for recreational sales to happen sooner than later also has its critics.

“We’re trying to truncate the process. I mean, where did this early start program even begin?” said Jim Hartman, a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization. 

Hartman, a retired lawyer in Carson City, often appears at the Nevada Legislature to voice his qualms with the state’s swift pace with legalization. He has noted on several accounts that Nevada is moving far quicker than he is comfortable with. 

“To me it’s a backroom agreement to get tax receipts,” Hartman said. 

The Marijuana Policy Project is nonpartisan but has been behind many of the lobbying efforts in states moving towards the emerald glow of legalization.

The first states that legalized recreational marijuana — Colorado and Washington state — waited more than a year after they voted in 2012 to approve legal sales, but they were the pioneers of the movement. Following their footsteps, Oregon and Alaska voted and waited about a year (even though marijuana has technically been legal in Alaska since 1975, according to its state constitution).

“Of the states that have legalized marijuana, two of them had kind of a unique situations: Washington and Alaska, they were starting from scratch. There were no testing rules, there were no licensing rules,” O’Keefe said. 

Those living in Washington, D.C., which voted in 2014, can possess, cultivate and donate weed, but sales are still couched. 

As Nevada prepares for full-throttle legalization, the Nevada Department of Taxation, which is tasked with overseeing the recreational marijuana industry, is working hand-in-hand with the Department of Health and Human Services, which has overseen the state’s medical marijuana program. 

Although Nevada legalized medical marijuana in 2000, the state did not approve regulations until 2013, and the industry did not get off the ground until 2015.

Since then, green has gone wild.  

The state’s medical marijuana program had 60 medical marijuana dispensaries, 88 cultivation facilities, 57 production companies and 11 testing laboratories in Nevada as of May 10, the most recent survey of medical marijuana establishments by the state health department. 

Nearly 28,000 in-state cardholders are enlisted as of May, and Nevada’s dispensaries also serve cardholders from out-of-state thanks to the in-state reciprocity laws. 

One of the concerns that dispensaries have is how they will separate medical and recreational product since much of it is the same product, but taxed differently. Their greatest concern is that they could run out of supply for medical cardholders.

Several legislative bills could change the marijuana tax structure, but, for the time being, recreational marijuana will be sold with a 15 percent wholesale tax.

Medical marijuana will be sold with a 2 percent wholesale tax. Medical marijuana also carries a 2 percent tax applied at production and another 2 percent tax applied at sale. 

“It’s tough because we’re still trying to figure out the laws,” said Macfarlane, from Sierra Wellness Connection. 

Current bills being considered by the Nevada Legislature address everything from packaging requirements to municipality taxes and fees to research guidelines, and even the industry regulations could change when the temporary ones switch over to the permanent ones in January. 

It doesn’t help that, since marijuana is illegal on a federal level, businesses have to deal entirely in cash. Sierra Wellness is hiring a security guard for their location before July. 

While there are certainly some stresses that come with the line of work, she still is on board with the state’s momentum. 

“(The state is) jumping on the opportunity. Any new industry is stressful. You have to fail a few times, but that’s how you figure it out,” Macfarlane said.

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