High desert

Can Nevada's newest crop weather a record drought?

Medical-marijuana businesses are in their bureaucratic homestretch.

Medical-marijuana businesses are in their bureaucratic homestretch.


To read the legalese for medicinal pot, visit http://bit.ly/1D3tlQm

In late March, Sierra Wellness Connection became Nevada’s first commercial medical-marijuana business to get state approval. Less than a week later, the fledgling company––led by former University of Nevada, Reno president Joe Crowley––also got the City Council’s unanimous nod to sell the medicine. As of press time, Sierra Wellness and Certified Ag Lab of Sparks were the only two such establishments to clear the final state hurdle, said Pam Graber with the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health. More are coming, of course, as hundreds of companies received provisional certifications last year.

“Provisional certification is pretty much a blessing from the state that says, ’We’re OK with you. Now just go do what you need to do at the local level, make sure you can jump through their hoops, too, and you’re good to go,’” Graber explained.

Once city paperwork is in order––and state inspectors come for a final look-see––a company can move forward. That’s where Sierra Wellness now stands, though treasurer Deane Albright said the East Second Street dispensary won’t open until August or so. Plants don’t grow overnight, you know.

Know, too, that law-abiding commercial growers won’t have the fragrant crop in their yards. Plants must be locked indoors, in a precaution Graber said is largely meant to deter theft. The stipulation that medical marijuana must stay inside arguably makes it more sustainable as well, especially in a parched desert.

Take CannaVative Farms, a cultivator that received its local license last week and will use high-tech pods to grow the medicine. (Sierra Wellness and a third company, MMG Agriculture, are also newly licensed growers.) Made from modified shipping containers with software that quickly alerts to threats such as pests and viruses, the pods are “a controlled environment, and are going to use less water than the typical grow,” said CannaVative founder Joey Gilbert. He thinks greenhouses would be a positive addition too, should they ever be allowed.

“We’re not talking about your greenhouses of 50 years ago,” Gilbert said. “There’s a lot to be done with solar energy, with renewable energy.”

In the initial application process, new business owners of all stripes must indicate how much water they’ll use, “and of course the applicant always says they’ll use less,” said John Erwin, Truckee Meadows Water Authority’s director of natural resources planning and management. Prospective pot growers have provided a rather wide range of estimates, so TMWA is studying facilities in Colorado and the Bay Area for comparison.

To be clear, there’s no point at which city staffers throw up their hands and say a business is too much of a water hog––provided the bills are paid. But for the second year, TMWA has asked customers to cut consumption by 10 percent, using 2013 numbers as a baseline. Northern Nevada is in the midst of a record drought.

Cannabis “actually is a low-water plant, depending on how you grow it, how big you grow the plant and how you trellis it out,” said Clint Cates, CannaVative’s director of operations. “With a lot of outdoor grows, your plants are a lot bigger, so they take a lot more water, but no more than any other agricultural crop.”