Dozens of people line up outside the Silver State Relief medical marijuana dispensary in Sparks, Nevada, to be among the first in the state to legally purchase medical marijuana on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Scott Sonner, The Associated Press)

Historic day in Nevada: First medical marijuana sales after 15-year wait

SPARKS, Nev. — Fifteen years after Nevadans voted to legalize it, medical marijuana was sold legally in the state for the first time Friday at a dispensary in a strip mall about 5 miles east of downtown Reno.

Dressed in polo shirts, tie-dyes and button-downs, about 75 people with medical marijuana cards lined up outside Silver State Relief, between a sub shop and pizza place in Sparks, to be among the first to buy as much as a half-ounce of pot for $195.

“It smells good in there,” said Dana Metz, 64, a retired General Motors worker who said he suffers from back pain, insomnia and anxiety. He was the first in line two hours before the doors opened just after 10 a.m.

“Like a kid in a candy store,” Metz said with a smile as he emerged with a package of pre-rolled cigarettes. “It’s great. It’s clean. It’s very professional. Everything is labeled, and the people are knowledgeable and very helpful.”

Unless the next Legislature takes action sooner, Nevadans will consider another ballot measure in 2016 to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

They approved medical pot in 2000, but the law lacked language to establish a system to sell or distribute the drug until 2013. Before that, anyone authorized had to grow their own — up to 12 plants per person — or find it some other way.

“The politicians just didn’t have the will to do what the people wanted,” said state Sen. Tick Segerblom, a major proponent of marijuana legislation. “Why the Legislature could not get behind this blows my mind.”

Nevada is among 23 states that allow medical marijuana, along with Washington, D.C., and Guam.

On average it takes nine to 18 months for stores to open following legislative approval, said Karmen Hanson, marijuana analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of the 25 states and territories that approved medical pot, most are up and operational. “By two years, there’s usually something,” Hanson said.

As for recreational pot sales, customers can buy it in Washington and Colorado and eventually in Alaska and Oregon, where it’s been approved but no stores have opened yet.

Nevada already has distributed many of its 66 marijuana dispensary licenses, but it’s unclear how soon Las Vegas or other parts of the state will see shops open.

The process was complicated when Clark County gave preliminary clearance to eight applicants, and the state later gave preliminary clearance to eight others. The state deferred to the county’s list, but the future of the state-approved entities is uncertain.

Nevada Medical Marijuana Association Executive Director Will Adler said the state’s strict rules — based on Colorado’s system — will stave off problems once dispensaries get off the ground and become a model for other states.

“We tried to write the law that would be the gold standard for the country,” he said.

Nevada’s regulations include “seed-to-sale” tracking to trace marijuana to the source — a measure aimed at preventing black market marijuana from seeping into the system, or thieves from taking pot out. The Department of Agriculture also is working to finalize a pesticide testing process that screens for 30 to 40 different chemicals, the first such system in the nation.

Silver State Relief General Manager Aron Swan said Sparks officials were supportive from the beginning.

One thing the city did right was to pick dispensary locations in industrial areas, he said.

“There are no homes around here, no churches or parks,” Swan said. “We’ve had zero pushback.”

Swan noted cardholders who come to Silver State Relief are not stereotypical stoners but normal people who use pot as medicine. He cited a young veteran with PSTD who told him marijuana is the only thing that gets him through the day.

“It gets me choked up, a little teary-eyed, and proud to be a part of this,” he said.