LAS VEGAS — Kurt Duchac has been growing his own medical marijuana for about three years.
He turns to his small garden of plants daily to heal the chronic pain in his back brought on by working decades as an auto mechanic.
He eats the weed in cookie form or turns it into a liquid, dropping it into his mouth. He swears it also has helped lower his blood sugar. At night, he smokes another brand for the “euphoric effect.”
Knowledge about the plant’s medicinal properties is growing. The proof is in the number of pot dispensaries that operate in 12 states, where sales are expected to hit $1.5 billion this year. That’s a 15 percent increase from 2012, according to the Rhode Island-based Medical Marijuana Business Daily, whose editorial operations are based in Denver, ground zero for the industry.
But things are about to change for Duchac and other legal medical marijuana users as well.
Nevada is on course to become the 13th state to allow medical marijuana dispensaries. As many as 40 of them are expected to open in the state next year, some of them as early as spring.
Medical marijuana users welcome the law, saying legal pot dispensaries will help remove the stigma from people who need the drug to cope.
But such commercialization can mean only one thing for Duchac: His days as a patient-grower are numbered. He’s got two years, and then his investment could go up in a puff of smoke.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think the state is going to come in and give me $4,000 to turn my room back into an office’?” said Duchac, 43, as he sat in his living room, motioning to a room full of bright lights and flowery plants, the unmistakable aroma of the skunky weed permeating the air.
“Now, I’m going to wait and see,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Other medical marijuana supporters are excited for another reason: It’s a great business opportunity, and they are eagerly joining what is being called “the green rush.”
WHAT THE NEW LAW DOES
Senate Bill 374, which was approved by this year’s Legislature, went into effect July 1. That’s when the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services could start drafting regulations by which future dispensary operators will be chosen.
Already, state health regulators are looking over the rules from Colorado’s and Arizona’s dispensary programs for possible use in Nevada. Over the next several months, they will work on the first draft of regulations before sending them to the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which will fine-tune it and send it back to state regulators for enactment, said Marla McFade Williams, a deputy administrator for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, which is already setting up workshops for the public.
“We are not going to be able to change any part of the law. We’re here to regulate it,” she cautioned, fully aware of the controversy and confusion that comes with instituting new laws.
Ultimately, the state Board of Health will adopt the measure, she said.
“Ideally, we’d like to take the first application for the dispensary in April, so we’re looking at the possibility of having one up and running by mid-May.”
The bill allowing pot dispensaries was a logical follow to Nevada’s Legislature legalizing medical marijuana use and possession in 2000. That bill set up the medical marijuana card registration system, but failed to provide pot dispensaries — pharmacies, really — where the state’s estimated 3,800 patients could buy their medication.
It has been more than a decade since Nevada became one of the first states to legalize pot use, behind Oregon, Washington, Maine and Alaska. The Silver State legalized it the same year as Colorado, which often is propped up as either a success story or a cautionary tale, with more pot dispensaries than Starbucks cafes.
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, a Boulder City resident and chief author of the bill, said he expects the number of patients in Nevada to double, maybe even triple or quadruple, in the next couple of years as the dispensaries become commonplace.
“This was not intended to be a money-maker,” Segerblom said. “Actually, we’re hoping to break even. But there’s definitely an interest out there. I have personally been contacted from people in and outside of the state who’ve told me they either want to grow it, or make brownies, or just sell it.”
Nevada’s dispensary law is rubbing some people the wrong way — such as Joe Hardy, a family physician for more than three decades, a Boulder City resident and a Republican state senator who voted against it.
“Today’s marijuana isn’t your grandmother’s marijuana,” he said. “It’s 80 percent more potent, and this notion that it’s going to somehow be controlled is absurd. It’s going to be an uncontrolled substance, and patients are going to have access to large doses.”
Hardy said a prescription drug already is available. It’s called Marinol. It helps increase the appetite of AIDS and other patients.
“You can get it at any pharmacy.”
THE GREEN RUSH
Only time will tell whether medical pot becomes a boon for state coffers — through fees — or entrepreneurs who decide to get into the game. But it already is drawing a lot of attention. Since the bill passed, the phone calls have doubled at Dr. Reefer, a Henderson-based company that has all but monopolized the business of securing medical marijuana cards for prospective patients.
The company, whose billboards dot the Las Vegas Valley, charges $545 per card, which includes the doctor’s diagnosis and at least $200 in state fees, from registration to criminal background checks to fingerprinting. It is not allowed to provide any of the drug itself, though.
A company spokesman said most of the callers were trying to beat the July 1 deadline so they could qualify to grow their own medical pot for two years, aligning them with the likes Duchac.
If they missed the cutoff, they can only grow until the first dispensary opens.
A few investors already have expressed interest in becoming Nevada’s first medical marijuana barista. One is Carl Harris, a retired Wall Street investor who lives in Palmdale, Calif., smokes daily to relieve his migraines and is already familiar with the different strains — AK 47, Train Wreck, Master Cush, Purple Jack, Hawaiian Snow, Tangerine Dream, to drop a few.
“They don’t call it ‘The Green Rush’ for nothing. It’d be silly not to get in on the ground floor on this one,” says Harris, 47, who recently sought the advice of Las Vegas attorney and legal pot guru Derek J. Connor.
Connor hails from Alaska, a state that legalized medical marijuana in 1998.
“You just watch,” Harris predicted. “There’s going to be a domino effect. More states are going to fall. It’s only a matter of time.”
SETTING UP A BUSINESS
Since the bill was signed, Connor has gone from defending medical marijuana patients in court to dispensing practical advice on how to open a dispensary.
He told Harris what he has told others seeking to get into the business. You need $250,000 in liquid assets; there’s no way you’re going to get a loan from a bank, because pot dispensaries are still considered illegal by the federal government and the risk is too high.
You also need a partner who has lived in Nevada and has federal tax returns to prove it.
He might talk to Duchac and his girlfriend, Jen Solas, who founded WeCan702.org, which stands for Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates in Nevada.
Right now Duchac and Solas are keeping a close eye on the new law and subsequent rules to see whether their small grow operation will be able to survive in the face of regulated supply.
There’s a chance that if a pot dispensary doesn’t open up within 25 miles of where they live in south Las Vegas, or fails to provide a particular strain that they both use as medication, they will be able to keep on growing. Those are two of the exceptions the state will allow patient-growers.
And yet the pair find themselves in the perfect position, at least from a business standpoint, to put their growing knowledge to use. Not everybody can simulate reverse osmosis and extract the medicinal qualities from a plant and turn it into liquid form.
But if they decide to get into the business, then the nonprofit will have to go, and with it their efforts to legalize medical marijuana across the country.
“I’m not ruling the possibility out,” said Solas, a Northern California native who teaches veterinary medicine at Pima Medical Institute, a job she has held for a decade.
Solas, like Duchac, swears by medical pot’s medicinal benefits, saying that for three years it has helped cure the aches and pains in her feet.
“It’s important that people know just how important cannabis can be to our country,” she said.