How legal cannabis is changing life in small-town Nevada

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When it comes to the budding cannabis industry in Nevada, much of the focus has been on the Silver State’s more populous cities and counties.

But residents in some rural communities say they already feel the effects of legalization. In Pahrump, a town of about 40,000 people in Nye County, some residents say the recreational marijuana market has been a boon.

“I would argue it has definitely been a source of revenue and has created jobs,” said Nye County Commissioner Daniel Schinhofen.

Nye County was one of the first to open a dispensary when Nevada legalized medical marijuana. Schinhofen said local residents feared the negative impacts of opening a dispensary: drug addicts laying out on the street, a rise of traffic accidents due to driving under the influence and an influx of crime.

But local supporters persisted. In 2015, The Grove became the only dispensary approved to open in Nye County.

The Nevada Department of Taxation has tracked sales from the county’s legal marijuana industry. In its first year of legal medical marijuana (Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2016) , Nye County measured $3 million in sales, an average of $20,000 per month. From January to June 2017, right before recreational marijuana laws took effect, sales in the county rose $3.5 million, averaging $580,000 per month. Once legalized recreational use began in July, marijuana sales increased again to $6 million over five months, averaging $1.2 million per month. 

Nye County now has 11 cannabis cultivation centers and five production sites, according to the Nevada Department of Taxation.

With water scarcity issues impacting southern Nevada, Schinhofen said some who opposed the state’s marijuana proposals feared that cultivation would further tax water resources. Cannabis cultivation centers do have to file a water impact analysis before opening.  

Oz Wichman, the general manager of the Nye County Water District, said marijuana cultivation has not been a significant factor in water use issues.

“(Each facility) uses as much as a single family residence,” he said. “There is no measurable impact as of right now.”

While some residents and politicians still are opposed to the cannabis business coming to Nye County, Schinhofen said others have come around, “especially when they’ve gotten a job in the industry or know someone who has gotten a job in the industry.”

While the dispensary was still pushing to open in 2015, Nye County was tracking a 9 percent unemployment rate. The county rate is now at 5.9 percent, according to the Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation (DETR).

Though the cannabis industry did create new jobs in Nye County, DETR officials said it’s hard to determine the exact numbers. When measuring job growth by industry, cannabis businesses share a miscellaneous category along with janitorial supply centers, religious stores and cake decorating suppliers.

“Employment statistics related to cannabis are lumped into a general ‘all other’ code categories,” said Rosa Mendez, a spokeswoman with the Department of Training, Employment and Rehabilitation. “There is no separate tracking specifically for cannabis.”

In 2016, average employment in the “all other” category rose from 70 people in the first quarter to 176 in the second quarter, then slid down to 108 in the third quarter. Mendez said drops like this are common because of the seasonal nature of the industry.

In the second quarter of 2017, when The Grove was expanding to sell recreational cannabis, overall average employment in this miscellaneous category jumped to 184 people.

For Zachary Wright, manager at The Grove, the cannabis industry arriving in Nye County has had a significant personal impact. Wright spent years commuting an hour to Las Vegas for a mixture of construction and retail jobs.

“There weren’t really jobs in Pahrump unless it was at a chain restaurant,” he said.

When The Grove first hosted a job fair in 2015, Wright said he stood in line for hours.

“It had to be in the 40s at 6 a.m.,”  he said. “There were about 400 people standing in line to attend.”

All the employees hired at the job fair were Pahrump residents. Wright said if they weren’t hired at the Pahrump location, some were referred to work at the Las Vegas location.

Beyond the financial impact, Wright argues that bringing a dispensary to Nye County has been a win for medical cannabis users. “We have two-and-a-half times the national average of medical marijuana patients here in Nye County.”

Medical marijuana cards were issued well before dispensaries were opened. Clark County had the first dispensary months before Nye County.

Wright said that some medical marijuana cardholders he talked to had tried growing at home.

“There were a lot of patients who didn’t have the green thumb to grow so they were turning to illegal delivery services,” he added. “This (dispensary) makes it safer.”