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The Cannabis Issue

Examining the hurdles Utah has to jump through to clear the way for medical cannabis.

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“I see marijuana as one of those industries that could pick up that slack if and when there is another downturn in the economy.” —West Wendover Mayor, Daniel Corona - DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle
  • “I see marijuana as one of those industries that could pick up that slack if and when there is another downturn in the economy.” —West Wendover Mayor, Daniel Corona

The Green Mile
Just 90 minutes west of Salt Lake City, the town of West Wendover grapples with Nevada's recreational marijuana option.

By Ray Howze

Legal recreational marijuana could soon be closer than ever to Wasatch Front residents.

Wait, what? Yes, Utahns could soon be within a 90-minute drive for access to the sticky green—and it would be legal. It would also be closer than options in Colorado, Mesquite and Ely, Nev.—about a four- to six-hour drive away depending on where you live.

Many residents in Salt Lake City might think of West Wendover as an overnight or weekend getaway for live entertainment and gambling. For years, it's been the closest option for Utahns to take in some of Nevada's enticements like casinos and cheap booze. But it could soon be home to another illicit (in the eyes of the Beehive State) temptation.

Since Nevada voters approved recreational marijuana in 2016, West Wendover's city council has debated how to establish the burgeoning industry. The city already has approved medical cannabis and the company Deep Roots Harvest, which also operates in Mesquite, is setting up a medical operation in West Wendover. In May, the council approved a wholesale grow option and in early July it approved selling 10 acres in its industrial park to BRLS NV Properties, LLC, which eventually will grow and ship marijuana to dispensaries throughout Nevada.

But commercially available to the general public? And perhaps to those visiting from Utah? Not quite yet.

Unlike Utah's other border town with Nevada—Mesquite, which jumped right into recreational sales—West Wendover has been a bit slower.

West Wendover City Councilman Gerald Anderson tells City Weekly he's wanted to go about approving marijuana in a "controlled manner" from the beginning.

"There are naturally some on the council that want to get it going and have it on every corner and there are others—I am one of them—that want to go in a manner that we settled on when we first started this thing, and that is to go with medical marijuana and get that set up first," Henderson says. "In the future, we'll vote on recreational."

He says he's not against the recreational option, but would like to see the medical distribution take hold first.

In April, the council rejected a recreational marijuana ordinance. The vote was 3-2 with Anderson as one of the three members voting nay. However, the city's mayor, Daniel Corona, vetoed what he called a "rash" decision.

"The motion that was made was very broad—it was to not allow any recreational marijuana," Corona says. "To me, if that would have stood, I don't think council would have been able to approve wholesale [marijuana] at the next meeting—I don't think the motion was very thought out and I wanted to leave that door open because it was such a broad issue."

While Corona is not up for re-election this year, he notes that because there is an election this November, the recreational question could be raised again as soon as 2019, depending on if any city council seats change. Three council members out of five—Ismael Gutierrez, John Hanson and Jasie Holm—are up for re-election.

One of Corona's goals has been to find new ways to diversify the city's economy because it "is very reliant on the casino industry," he says.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword because we wouldn't be here without them, but as we saw in 2008 when the economy went bad, the first thing people cut out of their personal budgets is the fun things," Corona says. "So they don't have that extra money to come out here and people lose jobs—we want to be sure that we have a strong economy ... that if something does happen, we have other industries that can pick up the slack. I see marijuana as one of those industries."

Corona, and others on the council, say they also recognize the impact recreational sales could have on Utah. Many residents of Wendover, Utah, for example, work on the Nevada side.

While "anything good that happens on either side of the border is good for the community," Corona says, he has also heard concerns from the Utah side's mayor about legalizing pot.

"Obviously, we want to discourage people from transporting marijuana across state lines because that is still federally illegal," Corona says. "But also, we need to find a responsible way for folks that come out to West Wendover and if they decide to go to a dispensary and purchase marijuana, we need to give them a place they can use it safely so there is no excuse for them to transport it across state lines."

A lot of factors come into play when it comes to Wendover, the councilmembers and the mayor admit. For example, if those who work in the gaming industry must be drug tested, using marijuana would eliminate that job option. Additionally, because of Nevada's laws, residents who don't live within 25 miles of a dispensary are allowed to home-grow up to six plants. Once a dispensary opens, however, residents within that periphery would need to stop.

Councilwoman Jasie Holm has advocated for a recreational option. As an owner of a catering business, she says she looks at the debate from a business perspective, but says the council hasn't been very "business friendly" on the topic.

"I'm for it, but the criteria that [Deep Roots Harvest] have to go through to build this new establishment without having recreational sales doesn't make sense to me," she says. "If you open an oil-changing place and you can't change oil but you can only balance tires, it doesn't make sense—recreational sales are where they're going to make their money."

Holm also says she would like to see the city keep pace with other Nevada cities.

"I think it's already so established, I even feel we're behind the times," she says. "It's not like we're taking any leadership role in it—it's common sense to me."

In his letter to the city council in April, Corona wrote if the city's numbers end up being similar to Mesquite's, it could add as much as half-a-million dollars to the city's revenues. He also proposed the idea of using funds for youth-prevention programs and other counseling options.

While not available to the general public yet—and as Utah residents vote on a medical option this November— locals will surely keep an eye on developments in West Wendover.

"At the end of the day, it's something that will help both sides of the community, employ people from both sides of the community and both sides will see benefits from it," Corona concludes.