In early 2020, legal marijuana sales were booming in Nevada. Tax revenue and sales figures reached record monthly highs, as likely did happy visitors and locals across the Silver State.
That all changed in March, when the coronavirus shut down cannabis stores, resorts along the Las Vegas Strip, and countless other businesses across the state. Following an order from Gov. Steve Sisolak, dispensaries operated for weeks on a delivery-only basis.
This month, though, cannabis stores are coming back—slowly. Most dispensaries have been open for in-store shopping at 50% capacity since May 30, the closest they’ve been to the pre-COVID days in more than two months. For everyone involved, the latest easing of state restrictions has been a welcome challenge.
Adjusting to the times
Nevada Wellness Center owner Frank Hawkins didn’t offer home delivery before Gov. Sisolak’s executive order forced all stores to close their lobbies. Curbside pickup is scantily mentioned in hundreds of pages of state regulations, and store owners generally understood it to be banned.
'We lost 35% of our business overnight, but we got more delivery orders than we could handle.'
For 40 days, cannabis stores could only deliver to customers. And their range was limited. Casinos resorts ban any kind of marijuana possession and use on property, and they were empty. Local buyers, which account for 70% of dispensary sales across Nevada, became the only option.
“We lost 35 percent of our business overnight but we were getting more delivery orders than we could handle,” Hawkins said. “We used our budtenders, hired a few new drivers, and put a $60 minimum to make it possible to serve everybody.”
Consumers stretched existing supplies
The resumption of near-normalcy has come as a relief to Nevada Wellness customer Mariela Rojas. Until the pandemic struck, Rojas kept to her routine like clockwork. Every other week after a shift at the Silverton Casino, the 45-year-old blackjack dealer stopped by Nevada Wellness Center on her way home to reload on THC vapes.
Still dressed in her casino uniform, she’d greet the familiar NWC staff and head to the back corner of the store where a disposable, 81% THC Blood Orange-flavored cartridge awaited her. Rojas bought the same flavor for the better part of a year because it provided the kick and the taste she craved.
“I tried some other stuff but I always kept coming back to Blood Orange,” she said. “It’s smooth but also very bold. Like vapor from heaven swirling through your lungs.”
Effects of the March 20 shutdown
Like so many regular ways of life she routinely enjoyed, Rojas’ marijuana shopping experience was turned on its head on March 20 when Nevada shut down to control the spread of COVID-19.
Rojas lost her job, nearly defaulted on her central valley home, and spent her time helping her three elementary-aged sons with online schooling. She was still able to get her weed though, as Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak allowed dispensaries to stay open for delivery as “essential businesses.”
For Rojas, the minimum meant getting her $31 Blood Orange cartridge delivered would require her to buy two. Cash strapped and out of a job, she held off on buying more cannabis. Instead, she took one less hit of her remaining pen per day in hopes it might outlast the pandemic.
Keeping it local
The closure of the Las Vegas Strip most threatened the valley’s two largest industry players, both of which serve primarily tourists.
At Planet 13, the world's largest dispensary, out-of-state visitors made up 80% of their pre-pandemic customers.
Planet 13, the world’s largest dispensary, accounted for one-tenth of cannabis sales for the entire state before the pandemic hit. Store officials estimated that 80% of its 2,200 daily customers lived outside Nevada. In February, each of those customers spent an average of $101 per visit, between the mega-dispensary and a Mexican restaurant on property.
From 5 delivery vehicles to 30
One of the few Las Vegas cannabis stores to handle their own home-delivery service (most others in Nevada used third-party distributors), Planet 13 normally had a five-vehicle fleet taking care of daily orders. By April, the store had ramped up to 30 vehicles to meet demand. The company managed to hold onto about half of its total pre-COVID business despite selling almost exclusively to locals.
“We kept everything in-house so there weren’t hiccups and we could control every step of the way, from the drivers to the vehicles and the ordering system” said Planet 13 spokesperson David Farris. “Our biggest challenge was just scaling our service to keep up with the deliveries.”
More options for tribal stores
On tribal land just north of downtown Las Vegas, NuWu Cannabis Marketplace also shut down its lobby but left its drive-thru open for customers that wanted faster service. A handful of the overwhelmed home-delivery services from other dispensaries at first took up to four days to get customers their marijuana.
The Paiute tribe, which owns the dispensary, is able to call the shots on their cannabis operations because they’re not subject to state law, due to tribal treaty rights. In other words, NuWu can open and close whenever the tribe wants.
Paiute Councilman Benny Tso said that presented an opportunity to welcome frustrated cannabis consumers tired of waiting for products to be delivered.
Drive-thru: a popular option
Viral videos of NuWu’s drive-thru showed cars lined up more than a half-mile down Main Street to get their cannabis in late March. Tso said the daily lines continued through April before Sisolak let dispensaries begin offering curbside pickup on May 1.
“It came down to convenience for a lot of people,” Tso said. “Especially in the case of medical buyers and senior citizens, we didn’t think it was right for them to wait days for delivery if they could legally get it sooner.”
Nevada’s three-week Phase 1 reopening period from May 8 to May 29 was perhaps the most awkward. When Sisolak let dispensaries open their lobbies to no more than 10 people, lines of buyers created waiting times, albeit brief, outside NWC, Planet 13 and NuWu.
The coronavirus never infected Planet 13 customer Patrick Meyer, but the 24-year-old Las Vegas resident said cabin fever associated with staying home during quarantine actually made waiting outside in 102-degree heat a not-so-miserable experience. Meyer said he waited for just 15 minutes before being let in to buy an eighth of Gorilla Glue #4.
“It was cool having the place almost all to myself,” he said. “Surreal too, because it’s always busy here.”
Customers screened before entry
Similar to NWC and NuWu, customers at Planet 13 are asked whether they’ve recently traveled outside the city or state, been exposed to anyone with the disease, or felt COVID-like symptoms of fever, dry cough or trouble breathing anytime during the previous two weeks. If the answer is “no,” they can come in.
Masks and social distancing are required for all customers at the reopened stores.
The three stores also require shoppers to wear masks. If a customer at Planet 13 doesn’t have one, Farris said, a receptionist checking IDs has a box of extras on hand.
Each of the dispensaries keeps their marijuana products inside display cases. Gone, at least for now, are the sample-size cubes on top of the cases with buds and an air hole for smelling the flower before buying it. Employees wear gloves and wipe off the glass display-case exteriors each time a customer touches it, or as much as possible.
“It’s the safest way until we understand this virus better and have more testing,” Farris said. “Health and safety first, for our employees and our customers.”
50% capacity for now
As Nevada’s phased reopening nears completion, cannabis stores are open at 50% capacity. For Planet 13 and NuWu, whose capacity is in the several hundreds, that limit is more than enough for a regular customers to shop with masks and social distancing, without having to wait to enter.
Hawkins takes a different approach at NWC. The store’s main shopping area remains closed to buyers until further notice. Instead, customers can do curbside, delivery, or walk inside to the entrance lobby’s window to place their orders. Hawkins said the walk-up-window style was the closest thing he could offer with a sound conscience to opening his store back up.
“A human life is more important than a business,” Hawkins said. “When the time is right and we’re completely confident that people aren’t going to get sick, then we’ll open back to normal.”