NV: Medical Marijuana Devotees Say Cannabis Culture, On Display For 4/20, Kept Their Healing Quest Alive

Photo Credit: Daniel Clark

Nicholas Baccala, a budtender at Exhale dispensary in Las Vegas, rattled off a number of technical words Friday as he talked to reporters about his products — terpenes, limonenes, pinenes.

A former surgery assistant and nutritionist, his main interest in cannabis isn’t getting people as high as possible — it’s figuring out what strains can help people with their ailments. He spends his off-hours poring over dissertations — some of them thousands of pages long — by the few doctors who are studying the substance in a restrictive research climate.

“We’ve had patients come back here, crying, hugging us, thanking us,” Baccala said, crediting cannabis with everything from curing spasms to staving off the need for an amputation. “It’s a miracle, it really is.”

Although medical marijuana has been legal in Nevada since 2000, it’s been eclipsed since the recreational marijuana market started making sales last July. The number of cardholders has dropped from 28,308 in May 2017 to 21,759 in February, according to the most recent statistics available. Even though cardholders can buy marijuana without paying the 10 percent excise tax that recreational customers pay, the discount hasn’t been enough of an incentive to prevent the 25 percent decline in active cards.

Experts say rules against carrying a weapon and a medical marijuana card prevent gun owners from signing up, the application cost and process can be a hassle, and some don’t want to turn over sensitive information to the government database.

Many customers buying in a recreational line are actually seeking the product for pain or another health condition, according to Las Vegas Medical Marijuana Association President John Laub.

But he wants to ensure a distinct medical marijuana program stays in place, rather than what’s happened in Washington State, where the medical and recreational markets were merged.

Advocates who push for patients’ needs amid the surge in recreational customers want to ensure products with healing benefits are still available even if ones more likely to get people high might sell better, for example, and they also want to ensure medical patients aren’t waiting behind recreational ones when they get to a dispensary.

Some dispensaries have even designed their buildings with medical patients in mind.

NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, a large dispensary north of downtown that’s owned by the Las Vegas Paiute tribe, is the only one in the area with a drive-thru window. Tribal Chairman Benny Tso said the concept was initially aimed at helping patients who struggle to get out of their vehicles to buy marijuana.

Since its opening, traffic has surged from about 10 people a day to 300 a day, Tso said.

On Friday, the association took reporters on a bus tour of several dispensaries in the Las Vegas area. Cannabis’ “high holiday,” 4/20, is their biggest sales day of the year, and the stores included plenty of customers wearing yoga pants or Hawaiian shirts with bright green marijuana leaf prints.

The association is more interested in spreading the word about the benefits of cannabis toward helping epileptics or relieving chronic pain. Laub pointed out that Dr. Sue Sisley, a researcher who’s studying how cannabis can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, visited Las Vegas a few months ago. Her work on cannabis, along with the findings of Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, are among those that Baccala says inform his recommendations to medical marijuana patients.

But Laub noted that the cannabis culture that was on full display at concerts and other special events hosted by dispensaries has spurred along marijuana’s acceptance as a medical remedy.

“It was the marijuana culture, the cannabis culture that kept us going. Everybody else didn’t understand their claims or accept their claims,” he said. “We know it is beneficial.”