A line of cars stretches for over a mile down the main street of Ruby Vista Drive in the remote Nevada town of Elko. Tumbleweeds and sand waft gently through the desert town that, without the cars, would feel like the setting of a classic American Western movie.
Of all places, though, the adult-aged drivers aren’t waiting for a saloon or spectacle of some sort. They’re vying for chance to enter a Native American reservation.
And they won’t be gambling, shopping for souvenirs or buying liquor when their hour of inching towards the Elko Band of Te-Moak’s megastore finally leads them there. Instead, the local shoppers will join a growing number of Americans getting their legal cannabis from tribal marijuana shops.
“This is something we’d never have thought possible even just a few years ago,” said Te-Moak chairman Davis Gonzales. “But the reaction from people and their interest has been amazing.”
Newe Cannabis, which opened its store lobby to the public this month, is the latest in a growing number of Native American-owned dispensaries to make their mark on the U.S. cannabis industry. The country now has 25 tribal-owned cannabis stores, about a third of which are located in Nevada. Nearly half of the 25 stores have opened since the start of 2020, and at least five more – in Nevada, Michigan and Oklahoma – are scheduled to debut within the next several weeks.
For Gonzales and the Te-Moak Tribe, cannabis was an easy choice. Despite some opposition within his own tribe and even from the city’s mayor, the longtime chairman said the economic and medicinal opportunities proved too good to pass up.
The tribes’ embracing of cannabis and CBD has been a winning formula in a country where tobacco use has declined significantly and where more commercial operators have the green light to open casinos. While many Native American tribes across the United States have profited handsomely by operating a casino, others, especially in Nevada, have commercial competitors that dash any hopes of cashing in on a gaming venue.
And at its core, doing business with cannabis makes a lot more sense than casinos, Gonzales said.
“Marijuana is a medicine from the earth, and we in the tribes have a very spiritual relationship with nature. We feel especially close to it because it’s consistent with our beliefs and traditions.”
Benny Tso stands on the curb of a concrete sidewalk in Las Vegas looking up at a snow-covered mountaintop, several miles away.
Tso, a mid-40s father of four who served as the chairman of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe for more than a decade, recalls the story of his ancestors making an annual trek each year from near where he stands to the mountainous area to escape the desert heat.
When temperatures cooled down in the area now known as Las Vegas, Tso said, the tribe would migrate back down the mountain toward a natural spring in Vegas that’s now called Springs Preserve.
“That’s our creation story and that’s where we came from,” Tso said. “When the Creator made us, he made us like ants. And when the world flooded, the ants went up to the mountain. Those who walked up the pine trees and didn’t get drowned by the water transformed into who we are today.”
Thousands of years later, Snow Mountain – known outside the tribal community as Mount Charleston – is used for skiing and other outdoor recreational activities by people not part of the tribe. The Paiutes’ old migratory route is spotted with housing subdivisions and roads. But now, the tribe is celebrating its success in cannabis and CBD – to the tune of over $50 million in revenue.
The 15,800-square-foot NuWu Cannabis Marketplace became the world’s largest dispensary when the tribe first opened shop back in 2017, on its reservation just a mile away from bustling downtown Las Vegas. A couple years later, the Paiutes launched a second, smaller dispensary — Nuwu North — near its golf resort by Snow Mountain. The two dispensaries combine to welcome as many as 4,000 daily customers via the storefronts and 24-hour drive-through windows located on the backside of both facilities.
The Paiutes also boast the state’s only consumption lounge, thanks to a special compact with the Nevada authorities that allows the tribe to bypass certain marijuana regulations that stifle non-tribal other CBD and cannabis store owners.
“In true Vegas style, we’ve gone all-in,” Tso said. “It’s been an incredible ride, and we have even bigger plans for the near future.”
One of those plans, he said, include a mega cannabis club, complete with a pool, thumping DJs and all the other typical Vegas amenities. The fate of the dayclub-style cabaret, long rumored to be in the works, will likely depend on what happens with a state bill that would open the floodgates for mega-lounges in Sin City.
As lucrative as cannabis has been for the tribe, Tso points to the effect that Native Americans are having on the U.S. industry as a whole.
The Paiutes’ stores carry more than 1,000 different CBD and cannabis products from over 200 of the state’s 240 combined cultivation and production facilities. The tribe has written seven-figure checks for some of their product purchases, helping the once-fledgling field to thrive.
Thanks to NuWu’s success, the Paiutes regularly welcome eager Native American leaders from around the U.S. and Canada to tour the dispensary and offer a look into the in-and-outs of operating a legal cannabis business.
As states have different laws on CBD and marijuana – and restrictions on tribes’ abilities to grow and sell the plant – Tso notes there’s no “one-size-fits-all formula” to entering the Green Rush. That goes even for U.S.-based tribes, until the plant becomes federally legal.
In the meantime, Tso and Gonzales said they’re happy to educate their tribal brethren while ensuring their respective tribes are economic drivers for decades to come.
“The growth is inevitable,” Tso said. “We’re going to set the bar high and we want to bring the industry with us.”
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