Legal cannabis grudgingly comes to Elko County, Nevada

The community of Jackpot hopes a dispensary will help buoy the sagging local economy

Cannabis flower - photo: the Ally

Nevada voters approved the state’s medical marijuana program in 2000, though the system of cultivation operations, processing facilities, and retail dispensaries did not become operational until 2015.

In 2016, Nevada voters legalized cannabis for recreational possession and use. Since January 1, 2017, anyone 21 years of age or older can legally purchase cannabis from one of more than 70 dispensaries located across the state.

Since 2017, in unincorporated parts of Elko County, there has been a ban on cannabis businesses, medical and adult use.

Three of Elko County’s incorporated cities, Wells, Carlin and West Wendover have passed ordinances to allow cannabis businesses to operate.

In December of 2019, a dispensary opened in West Wendover.

In April of 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Elko Band Council of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone Tribal Nation opened a state-regulated dispensary on tribal land on the north side of the City of Elko. Newe Cannabis features a drive-through window, and business is reportedly brisk.

The town of Jackpot, in Elko County, is on the very northeastern corner of Nevada, some 70 miles north of Wells. As the name implies, casinos have traditionally sustained the economy of Jackpot, but business closures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have sent the town of 1,100 residents into an economic nose dive.

On July 1, Monica Burt and Teresa Hugill, both members of the Jackpot Town Advisory Board, asked Elko County Commissioners to allow a dispensary in Jackpot to stave off the effects of the severe economic downturn.

Jackpot is the county’s largest unincorporated community but has no law-making ability of its own and must abide by County law. The 5-member Town Advisory Board voted unanimously in approving a formal request to the Elko County Commission for a dispensary in Jackpot.

Initially, commissioners’ reactions to the request were negative. Elko County Commission chair Demar Dahl is on record in moral opposition to legal marijuana and has yet to cast a vote in support of a dispensary in Jackpot.

During early discussions, Commissioner Delmo Andreozzi  wanted to impose several, prohibitive demands on a would-be cannabis business operator in Jackpot. Among a gauntlet of prohibitionist hurdles, Andreozzi proposed a half a million dollar retainer and a guarantee to continuously employ 40 people.

This is an architect’s rendering of a dispensary Thrive Cannabis Marketplace would build in Carlin, Nevada. Carlin is a city within Elko County that passed an ordinance that allows state-approved cannabis businesses within city limits – image: Thrive Cannabis Marketplace

Mitch Britten is CEO of Thrive Cannabis Marketplace. Thrive operates four dispensaries, 3 in southern Nevada and 1 in Reno. Thrive has 2 more dispensary licenses to develop, and according to Britten, folks in Jackpot contacted him earlier this year when the economic impact of the novel coronavirus became apparent.

“We’re always willing to make concessions and go to whatever extent we need to, but some of those demands, in my opinion, are a little outlandish if you will,” Britten said following the July 1 Elko County Commission meeting.

“But I think during the ordinance writing process we’ll be able to hold their hand and really make sure that their issues and concerns are addressed, but I do think some of those guarantees will be hard,” Britten said.

Since then, there’s been a lot of wrangling.

The draft ordinance presented to commissioners yesterday contained none of Andreozzi’s early demands. Commissioner Andreozzi said after consulting with the Elko County District Attorney’s Office, many provisions he wanted to be in the ordinance could not be included.

Rand Greenburg, a deputy district attorney with the Elko County’s District Attorney’s Office, reviewed the draft ordinance for commissioners yesterday and asked the commissioners to consider a first reading of the bill and then, by resolution, determine the application and renewal fees.

The ordinance as written would impose a 3 percent tax on a dispensary’s gross receipts. Commissioner Andreozzi proposed that the 3 percent tax go to the County.

Andreozzi also proposed that the initial business license fee be $20,000 for a dispensary. The annual renewal fee would be $10,000, and the business license fee revenue would go to the community of Jackpot.

Commissioner Rex Steninger asked Andreozzi how he came up with the fee amounts.

“I wanted to do a million (dollars of taxes and fees), but I was told … we came across some data that talked about unusual or too high fees,” Andreozzi responded. “So Rand did a lot of looking around and he saw those other values in other counties in the state and feels like that is a defensible value that we came up with on the business license.”

In addition to any county taxes or fees, the State of Nevada charges a $20,000 initial licensing fee for an adult use dispensary license with a $6,600 annual renewal fee. The state’s initial license fee for a medical cannabis dispensary is $30,000 with an annual  renewal fee of $10,000.

Should a cannabis company doing business in Jackpot wish to operate a cultivation facility, which the draft ordinance allows, a cultivation license comes with an initial $30,000 fee and a $10,000 annual renewal fee to the state.

Thrive Cannabis Marketplace did not respond to a request for comment.

During yesterday’s meeting, Andreozzi said despite his long-standing opposition to legal cannabis, he is resigned to the reality that legal marijuana is here to stay.

“I know, right wrong or indifferent, it (legal cannabis) is here, it’s coming. I know if it doesn’t happen in Jackpot, it’s gonna happen in Wells or Carlin or wherever else it could happen. And you know, I still think there’s gonna be an impact that the county could see whether it’s in our judicial system or our sheriff’s position. So by allowing this to happen in Jackpot, we at least get some of the revenue to try to try to deal with the social impacts of this,” Andreozzi said.

Commissioner Cliff Eklund said his view of legal marijuana has been slowly evolving.

“I’ve came a long ways from a flat no to at least considering it,” Eklund said. “Only for the citizens of the town of Jackpot because industry isn’t just waiting to move into Jackpot and they’ve lost a tremendous amount of jobs with Cactus Pete’s closing, laying off people and the 93 Club closing. There’s a lot of impacts other than the town of Jackpot, and Delmo touched on a little bit of it when he said the sheriff department … I personally would like to hear what the sheriff has to say.”

Commission chair Dahl said he wanted to hear from the sheriff too because he had received email from citizens in Twin Falls, Idaho expressing concern about a dispensary in Jackpot. Twin Falls is a community of roughly 50,000 residents some 30 miles north of Jackpot. Cannabis is illegal in Idaho, but possession of less than 3 ounces is a misdemeanor.

With the exception of Wyoming, every state that borders Idaho has legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis, to include the nation of Canada.

Elko County Sheriff Aitor Narvazia was in attendance at yesterday’s meeting and said he has spoken with the Sheriff of Twin Falls County.

“I have had contact with the Sheriff in Twin Falls County. The Sheriff in Twin Falls County has told me he’s not going to get involved in our politics. What happens in Nevada stays in Nevada, and he’s good with it. He did tell me that the town of Jackpot, this would be good for them since they are hurting,” Sheriff Narvazia said. “On the personal level for me, I’m not a big fan of it, but like Commissioner Andreozzi said, it’s here. Okay. I would rather have the people buy legally, a safer product, than buying it from a regular Joe Blow down the street.”

The commissioners passed a draft version of the ordinance on a 4 to 1 vote. Commission chair Demar Dahl voted no.

Now that the business license fees have been proposed, the DA’s Office will conduct a business impact analysis. Public comment will be heard, and a second draft of the ordinance will be eventually presented to the commission for discussion and possible adoption.

No timeline for approval or denial has been set. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Elko County Commissioners is September 16.

At the close of discussion on a Jackpot dispensary agenda item yesterday, Tracey Jewell, chair of the Jackpot Town Advisory Board, thanked commissioners for creating an exception to county cannabis policy.

“I just want to thank all of you guys that have put this together and the amount of time that you did put into it. I understand that you’re doing it for Jackpot, and I appreciate it,” Jewell said.


Brian Bahouth is editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media reporter. Support his work.