RENO — Here’s a new word for your cannabis lexicon, one that will serve you well if you’re a gambler, skier or business traveler seeking medical cannabis in Nevada:
In woo-woo terms, reciprocity is an exchange of mutual benefit. In potspeak, reciprocity means people from California and 26 other states and the District of Columbia can easily obtain and use medical cannabis in Nevada. At least for now.
While dispensaries and the state attorney general haggle over the exact documentation California residents must provide, Nevada offers reciprocity to qualified medical cannabis patients from any state where medical cannabis is legal.
Medical cannabis users no longer need to transport their stash across state lines. They can buy it Nevada.
“It’s a legal protection,” said Eli Scislowicz, general manager of NuLeaf Incline Village, a dispensary which opened in July in partnership with Berkeley Patients Group. “I’d feel a lot safer coming here.”
Nevada is the only state in America to offer such reciprocity. The program, authorized in the state’s 2014 medical cannabis law, launched when Nevada’s first dispensary opened in July 2015. Six other states offer a limited form: protection of the law to possess but not purchase.
“Reciprocity is a misnomer because no other states are saying, ‘Hey, Nevada, thanks for taking our patients; we’ll take your patients and swap databases too,” said Pam Graber, spokesperson for Nevada’s Medical Marijuana Program. “But it’s very popular.”
Graber said internal monthly reports of dispensary sales show out-of-state customers, primarily from California, can account for up to 50 percent of some Las Vegas dispensaries’ business. In Reno, Graber said, it’s about 10 or 15 percent.
“We’ve been expecting out-of-state patients since we opened a year ago,” said Bobbie Macfarlane, general manager of Sierra Wellness Connection in Reno. “We deliver to the downtown hotels and the Grand Sierra Resort. Fridays and Saturdays are huge for us. I would say that’s because of tourists, mostly from California.”
Reciprocity, however, comes with a catch for Californians and others. Responding to a proliferation of cannabis tour companies providing California clients online medical cannabis recommendations from inside Las Vegas limousines, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt issued an opinion this summer: Dispensaries can only accept government-issued medical cannabis cards.
That’s no issue for medical cannabis patients in most medical cannabis jurisdictions, where government-issued medical cannabis cards are mandatory to obtain and use medical cannabis.
But it’s an issue for people from California, Maine, Maryland and Washington because enrollment in these states’ medical cannabis identification card programs is voluntary. In California, most people enter dispensaries with letters or cards printed at doctors’ offices.
According to the California Department of Public Health, 6,667 California Medical Marijuana Identification Cards were issued in fiscal year 2015-2016. The Marijuana Policy Project estimates there are 758,000 medical cannabis consumers in California, or 19.4 percent of the state’s 39 million population.
“They quickly heard from us in the dispensary community,” said Jeff Grossman, assistant manager at The Dispensary in Reno, which, he said, serves many Californians visiting two nearby destinations, the Peppermill casino and Atlantis resort. “We said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ As long as they have a valid recommendation that works in the state of California and we can verify online the same way you would in California, why can’t people from California buy Nevada bud?”
That question has been thrown back to the Nevada Legislature, which convenes in February.
“The Department of Health said, ‘We will accept recommendations for now.’ But that could change,” said NuLeaf Incline Village’s Scislowicz, who said he forecasts a surge in California clientele this ski season.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way to move forward,” said Graber of the Nevada Medical Marijuana Program. “We’re just going to try to do the best thing we can to honor the integrity of the program and take care of patients who may be in Nevada on holiday or on business and who just want to play by the rules and not transport marijuana across the state line and buy their medicine when they get here.”
Until the Nevada Legislature sorts it out or until a critical mass of Californians get state-issued medical cannabis cards, Nevada dispensaries will ask Californians for the same documents they are accustomed to presenting at California dispensaries — original letters or verifiable cards from their doctors, plus valid government-issued photo ID.
“As long as they have original paperwork from their doctor where I can feel the embossed state seal and their identification matches, that’s all I need to let them in,” said Macfarlane of Sierra Wellness Connection.
Pointing to a plastic card issued to a California journalist from a doctor on San Francisco’s Haight Street, she said, “And with these ones, I let them in if I can verify the information online.”
In Nevada and most other medical cannabis states, state-issued cannabis cards cost $100. In California, prices vary by county — from $70 in Del Norte to $279 in Mariposa.
“It’s a very small percentage,” Graber said of Californians who possess state medical cannabis cards. “We can’t just say to Californians, ‘Hey, just go get a card. That’s the way it is.’ I don’t know if that’s in anybody’s best interest. That’s the mess we’re trying to muddle through.”
While possession and use of cannabis is recreationally legal as of Jan. 1, retail sales will not begin until at least this summer. Retail sales will be taxed at 15 percent versus 2 percent for medical cannabis, prompting some in the industry to predict that some customers may continue buying medical rather than retail.
Reciprocity and the out-of-state consumers it brings is one reason Scott Dunseath and his partners in Mynt, a dispensary that will open Feb. 15, purchased land and a building in downtown Reno directly across from Harrah’s hotel and casino and a short fly ball away from the Reno Aces Triple-A baseball stadium.
“We know that people fly into Reno and stay at the resorts and hotels,” said Dunseath, who is also president of the Reno Riverwalk Merchants Association. “We wanted people to be able to access their medicine within walking distance.”
Ed Murrieta is a Northern California journalist.