The flight from Seattle to Las Vegas, Nevada, was a short one; I had made the trip over a dozen times in the last year, but one was standing out in my head above the others. Vegas had become something of a mecca for cannabis trade shows, and there seemed to be a new industry event popping up in Sin City every other month.
In spite of its apparent liberal leanings, Nevada’s approach to cannabis had been notoriously conservative in the past. Possessing even a tenth of a gram would catch you a felony in the state until November of 2000 when medical use for chronically ill patients was approved, setting the groundwork for full recreational adult use on January 1, 2017.
I came here for funding three years ago when my own cannabis business was beginning to take off. I had started a lifestyle brand based around the dabbing scene that was coming online in 2012; the medical market was already in full swing on the West Coast and starting to produce its own cannabis rockstars. I jokingly dubbed them Dabstars and began posting mugshot-style photos with small biographies for captions to our social media. Before I knew it, we were touring the country and reaching millions of cannabis enthusiasts each week.
The plane screeched to a landing at McCarran International airport, jolting me from my thoughts. Duane Woods and Nick Woodward of Ekho Solutions greeted me at the terminal. They had started as liquor reps for Jesse James Bourbon, and we’d spent some wild times on the road together in the past. The boys lit up a pair of oversized joints and began passing them around the car.
I grimaced as we passed the Wynn. It was here that I met our New York investors for the first time. They had flown me out in style, picking me up in a limousine and renting the top floor of the luxury hotel. An attempt at shock and awe, which had admittedly worked on this small town boy from the mountains of Colorado. What followed was an unparalleled weekend of drugs and debauchery not fit for print in any magazine worth its ink. Suffice it to say, I nearly lost everything that trip and ended up rohypnoled and broke with a $10,000 hospital bill for my troubles. The whole thing had left me with a kind of Vegas PTSD that still had not worn off in the years since…
A client scored us a suite at Treasure Island and we headed up to cover the smoke detectors for a quick dab sesh before heading out into the streets. This was a work trip, but you wouldn’t know it from the look of us. Cannabis was not for the Harvard MBA—these were normal, red-blooded Americans who saw cannabis as their last real chance at the American dream.
The federal government had allowed the cannabis industry to flourish under the Obama administration, even enacting federal protections for states with cannabis laws on the books. These protections would later be altered by Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, further muddying the waters.
The mixed legal environment makes it tricky for up-and-coming brands looking to branch out of their home states and onto the national scene. Federal laws still prohibit and harshly punish interstate trafficking, ultimately reducing the industry to regional factions, with each legal state boasting a handful of breakout brands. Nevada was a new slice in the pie and many of these brands now found themselves in Las Vegas, entrenched in backdoor negotiations with those lucky enough to have scored a license to produce in the state.
Vegas itself is no ordinary city. Annual revenue here exceeded 25 billion dollars in 2016, catering to a staggering 40 million tourists each year. For an up-and-coming cannabis brand looking to be the next Coke or Pepsi, Vegas is a chance to expose their product to a national market.
Founded in 1905 from the deserts of what once was Mexico, Las Vegas sprang to life as a small water stop on the trade routes from Mexico to California. It was not until 1931—when construction began on the Hoover Dam, thus quadrupling the population in Las Vegas proper—the true makings of a city would emerge. Recognizing the potential to cash in, Nevada legislators reversed their previously conservative stances, passing a bill to legalize gambling that same year and giving birth to the Vegas we know today.
Here we were, decades later, and Nevada is cashing in again, clearing a cool 3.7 million in revenue during the first month of recreational cannabis sales. This nearly doubles Colorado’s first month of revenue, while covering a population gap of more than 3.5 million people and an insatiable tourist market.
I woke up early day two, shaking off the previous night’s festivities in the oversized, cascade-style shower, the endless supply of hot water slowly bringing me back to life. Hailing a cab I arrived at Essence, one of the dozen or so dispensaries now licensed in the area. A small sign split the line into medical and recreational customers and I took my place behind a group of tourists buying legal cannabis for their first time. Smiling, I spotted a few standouts in the display case. Vegas had its share of homegrown cannabis brands, but I was surprised to see some familiar West Coast brands alongside the locals.
For the forward-thinking cannabis entrepreneur, the map was beginning to look a lot like a chess board, and Vegas was beginning to look like the golden goose—a chance to reach a broader market in an industry wracked with growing pains and stifled by regional restrictions.
Whatever the future would be, the momentum seems unstoppable: Cannabis is here to stay, and (for now) the people who made it possible still have a stake in the game. This was always an industry of believers, and as I took once more for the skies towards Seattle, I was proud to count myself among them.
Next stop, Hawaii…
dabstars.com | Instagram: @jonah_tacoma