Road Trip: The Greening of Vegas

Interestingly, Las Vegas translates to “the meadows,” despite the fact that it is now a barren valley. The last watering hole after the ice age’s glaciers melted, Vegas was once a lush, green valley that formed the pools of water that would ultimately flow through the Hoover Dam.

In the late 1930s, Thomas Hull, owner of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, had his eye on the desert and built the first casino in downtown Las Vegas. The fancy Western-themed El Cortez Hotel opened in 1941. At the time, Vegas was a weekend getaway from Los Angeles for rabble-rousers—a place to drink, gamble, and get a quick divorce.

Once El Cortez was a hit, Hollywood reporter Billy Wilkerson built the Flamingo Hotel in an attempt to attract high rollers. It was the long, skinny legs of Bugsy Malone’s starlet (and sometimes mob courier) girlfriend, Virginia Hill, that inspired the name. Funded by mobsters, The Flamingo became the start of a string of hotels along what is still referred to as The Vegas Strip.

As a child visiting Vegas with my parents in the 1960s, I remember Highway 15 cutting straight through town and into the lights. It was, and still is, a magical experience to arrive in Vegas, with its metropolis of fun rising up from the desert floor. The casinos were built as gaudy palaces, with winding driveways circling fountains overlooked by Greek Gods. Star-struck visitors milled about, hoping to strike it rich on the card tables and slot machines.

My sister and I were only welcome poolside at the casinos or inside Circus, Circus. We played our own slots on rows of pinball machines upstairs and watched the adults in the casino below. There, my dad played Keno and my mom camped out in front of a nickel slot machine.

Our coffee table at home held ashtrays from The Flamingo, Caesar’s Palace, and The Golden Nugget: relics from the old strip, where casino lights still give the illusion of daytime at 3 a.m. and light shows entertain out front for free.

Winning Green

Since medical cannabis was voted into effect through Nevada Senate Bill 374 with a 17:4 vote during its State Legislative session in 2013, Vegas has embraced the culture. A year prior to legalization, the historic Bonanza Gift Shop (the city’s block-sized tourist attraction) added ashtrays and shot glasses emblazoned with cannabis leaves, putting a whole new meaning to the term “high roller.” My anti-hippie dad would roll over in his grave at the sight.

Just four retail shops were open by the time the city’s second annual Marijuana Business Conference & Expo took place. I was able to visit two of them: ReLeaf and Inyo, both beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities staffed with knowledgeable and friendly reps.

As a patient from another medically legal state, I’m in luck in Nevada, as they recognize my rights to safe access of my good medicine; all I needed was a letter of recommendation and my I.D.

Getting ReLeaf

While in ReLeaf, I had the good fortune to chat with Mr. Johnston, a longtime Vegas resident who arrived in the city in 1959 as a working musician. Not allowed to enter the casinos through the fancy circular driveways I traversed with my family years ago due to the color of his skin, Mr. Johnston had to enter through the back.

I mentioned that I was working on an article for the Jimi Hendrix issue of this magazine, and he shared with me that he once had the good fortune of playing with the late guitarist, recounting Jimi Hendrix’s last performance at The Monterey Pop Festival in California.

It was a surreal encounter, as the lineage of the stigma with black musicians and cannabis runs deep. One can imagine Sammy Davis, Jr. burning one outside the rear entrance with some of the great entertainers of the time, both black and white, for the herb knows no color.

An outspoken proponent of the plant, Louis Armstrong was no stranger to the herb or to Vegas, and once stated,

“I just won’t carry on with such fear over nothing, and I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus—and he wouldn’t dare, because he feels the same way I do about it.”

Healing at Inyo

While filling out my patient intake form at Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary, I noticed a woman in a wheel chair attempting to fill out her paperwork with the help of her grown daughter. She had dropped the clipboard on her leg and was sobbing in extreme neuropathy pain.

Photo: Sharon Letts
Photo: Sharon Letts

My heart sank and I handed her my vape pen for quick relief. Cameras were watching and patients are not allowed to medicate inside, nor are they allowed to share, so she took my pen outside. I soon learned she was there just for flower to smoke. We laughed at the thought of her being able to pop a pain killer inside a pharmacy, but taking a hit of a natural plant-based medicine in a dispensary is off-limits.

Despite having a morphine pump implanted in her body, smoking gave her the most relief. As is common with opiates and other pain killers, cannabis enhances their effect. Patients can still have pain while on up to 300mg of morphine, but when they smoke, relief is immediate. Patients are just beginning to learn that they can do away with the morphine and solely ingest cannabis for complete pain relief.

I made a deal with her and said I would help pay for a topical cream or edible tincture if she’d like to try it. She ended up buying flower and a transdermal patch from Mary’s Medicinals, a Denver-based company that produces CBD-only products (from cannabis) that can be shipped across state lines, due to their low THC count of 0.03 percent. She told me to keep my money and was grateful for the help.

Testing to be Sure

One evening, Susan and Curtis Bunce were watching the news when they saw a laboratory in Nevada getting licensed to test medical cannabis. Susan said a light bulb went off in her head, as she surmised it probably would take more than one lab to test all of Nevada’s finest.

One thing led to another, and as is often the case in this seemingly magical industry, someone knew someone who “used to work at a lab.” That someone turned out to be none other than Savino Sguera, who holds a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering from Columbia University. He was the former laboratory director for Steep Hill Labs, the first cannabis-testing lab in California. Not a bad connection.

Encouraged by her new alliance, Susan started DB Labs. Sguera is the laboratory director and his business partner, Marco, is the laboratory manager. The team they put together has a combined lab experience of 80 years, and the majority of them are women.

The 20 samples DB Labs currently tests per week will soon jump to 60 samples per day in the immediate future, but it won’t stop there. “That number will soon expand to 100 samples per day as the production increases in the New Year,” Bunce explained. Nevada currently has the most stringent testing in the world’s cannabis market. DB Labs uses the most state-of-the-art equipment available, with rigorous standards.

Sguera, who also consults for the cannabis industry on the topics of extraction and analysis, said the lab is currently “opti-mixing” its output efficiency and refining its methods in order to make room for the onslaught of samples to come. “We are also looking at the possibility of seeing more analytes: new cannabinoids, more required pesticides, lower tolerance levels, and so forth,” he explained. “With such an expansive market due to open in Las Vegas and elsewhere, Nevada has the potential to become the next major source of cannabis information and research.”

The advantage of coming into the game behind Colorado and Washington Sguera said, is being able to share information. “When different doctors, cultivators, producers, and especially laboratories begin to pool the information gathered on this enormous set of samples, we will have an invaluable new insight into the cannabis plant. For instance, how does the plant handle different chemical additives and contaminants? How can we identify strains based on chemical profile? How do growing conditions control this profile, and how do these chemical profiles translate to the pharmacodynamics of cannabis medicine?”

One thing Sguera said we must remember about cannabis is that it is still a plant, and unlike pharmaceuticals, its effects cannot be narrowed down and attributed to one or two chemicals that can be isolated and purified—although some companies do take that approach.

“A majority of cannabis’ medicinal qualities stem from the as-of-yet unknown interplay between hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes that currently only living plants can produce in the correct amounts,” he said. “As such, the best cannabis will come from the healthiest plants, and healthy plants are in constant symbiotic balance with thousands of different bacteria, fungi, and even parasites—with most of these microbes easily kept at bay by a healthy human immune system.”

Going Green

Former attorney Chris Van Hook is the founder, program director, and chief inspector for Clean Green, a certification program for farmers. Clean Green is a start-to-finish inspection program, covering all areas in which crops would be worked, stored, or cured.

Prior to its inception in 2004, the company was working closely with the USDA National Organic Program, certifying organic farms, so the transition to cannabis was natural. With nine inspectors working separate regions, Clean Green has been able to spread out. Currently certifying five states, they have applications pending in five more. “Eighty farmers were certified last year alone, but all told, we’ve helped more than 1,000 come into compliance since we began,” he said.

Green Life Productions, operated in Parhump, was the first farm to be certified in Nevada. Parhump is a small town about an hour out of Las Vegas proper, and to the east of Death Valley. The farm is indoors, a result of the harsh conditions of the Nevada desert, which has snow and frost in the winter and a short outdoor season before temperatures climb to 120 degrees in August. “The facility is an excellent example of how top quality indoor cannabis can be grown in a manner with very low consumption—and in a remarkably sustainable manner,” Van Hook said.

Green Life Productions uses LED lighting, which does not need to be cooled, making the reduction of energy in Nevada’s harsh environment easy. Producing a high quality flower with the lowest electricity possible is quite a feat in a region that demands constant energy use. “Its continual reuse and rebuilding of the soils in place further reduces the overall footprint of the facility by not having to replace their soils with each crop, which would require trucking it in and out of the valley,” he explained.

Farming Nevada

The cannabis market is still developing in Nevada, with farms and product being procured as I write, leaving dispensary shelves a bit wanting at the moment. Green Life Productions has been able to acquire a license and a step up in the market. The difference between Green Life Productions and a traditional indoor cannabis farm is that they grow in large, square beds with cover crops to feed the soil. They regenerate soil through organic composting—otherwise known as sustainable farming.

But the real story lies in its co-founder’s past. Steve Cantwell was born and raised in the tiny desert town of Parhump. Bored and challenged, Cantwell speaks of his time as a “troubled youth” before he began training in martial arts as a diversion. At 17, Floyd’s Ace Hardware sponsored his move to Las Vegas to live, train, and compete as a professional. It was a good move, and by the time he was 20 Cantwell was signed by the WEC, and soon after won his first title. At 21, he was the WEC Light Heavy Weight Champion. Then the injuries came.

“I started fighting with serious injuries,” he explained. “I knew the dangers of pain pills from what close friends and family had been through with them, and knew I had to find an alternative way to manage what was sure to be a lifetime of chronic pain.” Cantwell began researching, studying, and testing cannabis as medicine, realizing the benefits of the plant. With reservations, he enlisted his wife, Kouanin Villa, to help him.

“Steve and I met when we were 17, when he moved into the gym where I worked,” Villa explained. “Twelve years later we are still happily working together, growing cannabis in the former hardware building where it all began.” Villa shared that Cantwell’s attention to farming wasn’t always focused on cannabis. His love of farming started with fruits and vegetable gardens at home before transitioning to coral reef fish tanks, then to hydroponics and working with nutrients.

“I began growing in soil first with rock wool cubes, then coco coir and bottled nutrients, to mixing and recycling super soil, to finally what I believe to be the safest, most sustainable style on the planet earth—no till, organic, living soil.”

Cover crops are used as companion planting, just as backdoor, organic farming dictates. The outcome is biodiversity and rich soil with fewer pests. “Our goal is to introduce and grow healthy, beneficial life that outcompetes negative pests and pathogens, creating symbiotic relationships above and below our soil,” he concluded. What this means is that Green Life Productions’ bud and the medicine it makes, is clean and pure, loaded with beneficial compounds.

Truth and wellness go hand in hand in this industry, and both Cantwell and Villa say they are in this for the long haul. Putting off kids for three Rottweilers, they intend to focus on growing some of Nevada’s finest. Cantwell shared, “We feel true healing can only take place when we first free ourselves from the legal and moral convictions both society and our legal system has put on cannabis.”

From Silver to Gold, and then to Green

Nevada has had the advantage of watching what other states do for a very long time. We already know the money is there and the green tourist trade is a given, so the state is preparing in a very smart way. Starting with testing all products from seed to shelf and farming with the cleanest and most efficient methods, they make medicine for real ailments, not just prepping for recreation.

Now five states into my Road Trip series, I’ve noticed that when a state legalizes, more people get help and heal. Legalizing helps a medicine maker feel safe to come out of the green closet and to share for the greater good.

Whether you are a high roller or just heavily medicated in Sin City, you will experience healing with this plant—fiscally or otherwise. Inevitably, the plant, with its people, prevails.

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