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A look inside the changing demographics of cannabis users in Nevada

Sierra Wellness Connection manager Alexis Jensen predicts that when “rec” becomes available, dispensaries will see an influx of would-be medical marijuana customers who held off on applying for cards due to cost. PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER

Sierra Wellness Connection manager Alexis Jensen predicts that when “rec” becomes available, dispensaries will see an influx of would-be medical marijuana customers who held off on applying for cards due to cost. PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER

Vic first tried cannabis as a college sophomore. That was in the 1970s, at a Doc and Merle Watson concert in Deep Gap, North Carolina, near where he grew up. He’s 63 now and lives in Reno. Looking back, he said the effects were comparable to that of the Buddhist meditation he now practices.

“I just remember it being so liberating,” he said. “I was in the moment. I was joyful to be alive.”

As a pot-smoking senior—or, more often, a pot-gummy-bear-munching senior—“Vic,” who asked that we not use his real name, is not an anomaly. A 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the age demographics of users have changed quite a bit over the last 15 years. Since 2002, the number of teen marijuana users has decreased 10 percent, and people in the 35 to 44 bracket are now more likely to partake than their teenage kids are. Use among the 45 to 54 set has jumped almost 50 percent. As the Washington Post put it, “Among those ages 55 to 64, it’s jumped by a whopping 455 percent (no, that’s not a typo).” And one local dispensary rep said she routinely sees clients in their 80s.

Vic and his friends proceeded to smoke pot on occasion beyond college, and in addition to the joyful, liberated feeling it provided, there were a couple of other things that colored their experiences. For one thing, they thought it seemed less harmful than alcohol, and they saw some hypocrisy in that.

“Most people who I have experienced in my life who smoke pot and enjoy it are not aggressive at all,” Vic said. “Alcohol tends to have this curve, where it’s all joyful and everything, and then it starts to go down, and you feel heavy and angry, and that comes to the surface. … I’ve met a lot of mean drunks in my life, but I’ve never met a mean pothead.” As a young adult, he lived near a military base. Close by, he said, there were bars where soldiers drank and contracted services from prostitutes.

“There were shootings and stabbings galore,” he recalled. “I just couldn’t understand why anyone would choose that state of being, as opposed to something that was peaceful and kind and fun-loving.”

Another thing about smoking pot was the reputation it could earn a young North Carolinian in the ’70s. “In my area, if you smoked pot and you were a hippie, you were anti-American and anti-Vietnam,” Vic said. “So you weren’t a good American if you opted to [partake.]” He kept his hair short, didn’t dress much like a hippie, and kept a low profile, but he saw some peers arrested and sent to jail.

“A couple of guys were dealing out of their room, and they got busted,” he said. “And they didn’t have anything but, like, an ounce. An ounce is something like a sandwich bag, but you’re talking about handcuffs, police. … It would really anger me, because the people who made the decisions about my freedom to choose pot were right-wing, Christian alcoholics, the ones who were enforcing and making the laws.”

Vic, who is gay, moved in 1980 to New York City, where he was pleased to discover a thriving gay culture and a happening party scene. He tried cocaine and LSD, and had positive experiences with both. “I never felt like I was an addict,” he said. “I felt like I was using recreational drugs, but I never missed work. I never borrowed money. I never called in sick. … And I never thought it denigrated who I was as an individual. My experiences about being whole and happy and connected were even elevated to a higher level on LSD and cocaine.”

Vic said he abstained from drugs altogether during periods of time when others were in his care, including his 24 years as a high school science teacher. “I wanted to genuinely show the kids that you can be outgoing, loving, happy without anything at all,” he said. More recently, he abstained when he was a caretaker for his mother until her death in 2011.

Vic moved to Reno in 2014, where, he said, “I wasn’t going to walk out on the street to ask for some pot.” He attended Burning Man, and there he asked a friend for some pot, which he found surprisingly potent. “I thought I saw God,” he laughed.

“Then I started to get educated,” he said. “I have joint disease in both thumbs. I have a compressed spine in my lower L2s and L3s, and just general old-age joint issues.” Ibuprofen didn’t help, and he wanted to avoid opioids. From a friend, he learned about CBDs, the compounds in marijuana that offer pain relief but are not intoxicating (as opposed to THC, which is).

Vic promptly got a medical card. For the first time in more than 40 years, he was a legal user. When he first stood in line at a dispensary in Sun Valley, he cried with relief, remembering the days when using marijuana made him a deviant and a criminal.

This time around, he said, “I felt like I was doing the right thing—and not feeling guilty about it or that I had to sneak around. The validation came in seeing a dispensary almost like I see a McDonald’s. I could walk in and feel good about getting any product that they had to sell, that I liked. So, my thoughts were, ’God, [my college dorm mates] were thrown in jail, and here I am buying it with a card.’”

New users

Sierra Wellness Connection is a dispensary in a non-descript, brick strip mall on East Second Street. In its tiny front entrance, laser-cut pendant lamps decorate the ceiling, and a scrolling digital menu lists the prices of items such as Truckee River Kush, Snuffleupagus Pre-rolls, capsules, “gummiez,” strawberry crunch bars, “Agave TinQture” and avocado lemongrass body cream.

From behind glass, a receptionist welcomes clients warmly. Once they’re checked in, they enter a retail area that looks a bit like a Starbucks, where employees wear lanyards and black scrubs. Displayed inside acrylic cases are different strains and blends of buds, a variety of candies, Keurig-like pods for making pot coffee, and mini-fridge-sized bottles of pot-infused olive oil and salad dressing. Employees will gladly take out these products for clients to sniff or see up close, and they hava data handy about each product’s effects and potency.

Manager Alexis Jensen sat down to talk about who she’s seen come in the door and who she expects to see after the rollout of recreational marijuana, slated for July 1, unless courts intervene.

Jensen said one group she sees a lot of is tourists. But if you’re picturing out-of-towners toking up at the slot machines and poker tables, that’s not what pot tourism in Nevada actually looks like. While “420 tours” to dispensaries and growers are offered in Las Vegas, and while some in the business have observed that cannabis is likely being consumed in hotel rooms even though that’s not legally allowed, the “tourists” that Jensen mentioned are medical card holders from the San Franciso Bay Area, Truckee, Stockton or Sacramento, who say they prefer Nevada weed to California weed.

“Because of our rigorous testing and the regulations we have to follow, there’s a better quality of medicine in Nevada,” she said. “Nevada is the most regulated state, to our knowledge. We know exactly the milligram in one dosing of a gummy. … We get lab soil reports.”

A Nevada medical cannabis statue from 2014 stipulates stringent quality standards and accountability measures that apply to the products’ “identity, strength, quality and purity.”

“In Nevada, it’s called seed-to-sale tracking,” added Jensen’s colleague Michelle Smithson, manager of Sierra Wellness Connection’s Carson City location. “From the second it is planted in the ground, to the time that it ends up in front of the patient, it is tracked.”

In addition to Californians, Jensen listed some other groups that frequent Sierra Wellness. While college-age users are no longer a majority, some do come in. Other clients visit the dispensary seeking marijuana for children or pets, in CBD form, the non-intoxicating variety. Jensen said those clients tend to mention autism, behavioral issues and sleep problems.

She also sees veterans who suffer from PTSD and sleep issues. While many patients gravitate toward cookies or other food products, a noticeable number of veterans, Jensen said, enjoy the nostalgia factor of “certain strains, like Acapulco Gold—that was a strain back in the Vietnam days.”

Jensen also listed “soccer moms” and other women who approach her for advice on using marijuana oil for menstrual cramps. “They apply a little bit on a tampon, insert, and then it helps relieve,” she said. “We also have patches for that area too.”

Cannabis infused olive oil and salad dressing are among the edible products sold by dispensaries. PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER

At the Carson City location, Smithson has noticed, “We do have more of the cancer patients, because we’re really close to Carson Tahoe [Regional Medical Center.]”

And one group that Jensen and Smithson both expect to see more of as of July 1 is people who currently self medicate and could be medical card-holders but are not, due to cost or other reasons.

“I have a sixth sense that it’s going to be a lot of patients, not people going to the beach, because it costs $230 to get your card,” Jensen said. “We’re going to be seeing a lot of patients waiting for recreational to stop buying off the streets.”

Black market benefits

One of those self-medicating users is Peggy, a 68-year-old retired caregiver. She’s content with the product she uses now, though, and will probably stick with that, even after “rec,” as recreational legalization is sometimes called, takes effect.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, she partook once in a while with friends.

“We’d sit around and smoke and play chamber music with candles, and then we’d draw,” she said. These days, “Peggy” uses edibles sold by an acquaintance, and because that arrangement is not legal, she also requested that we not to use her real name.

For a few decades, pot didn’t play much of a role in her life. She’s a self-proclaimed lightweight who would take a toke or two at a party here and there and would feel at ease but withdrawn, more likely to listen to music in a corner than be the life of a party.

In 2015, Peggy’s daughter, who is 48 and has liver disease, got a medical card.

“She was telling me that even though it wasn’t getting rid of [the disease], she was able to function better,” Peggy said. She herself was suffering from what she called “a whole laundry list of stuff, everything from complications with diabetes to arthritis.” A stroke had affected her left arm and seriously decreased her typing speed. She was experiencing knee problems and taking oxycodone for the pain, which she wanted to take less of. Her daughter got her a vape system at the dispensary.

“It helped me sleep, and it did help me deal with the pain somewhat,” Peggy said. But as a retiree on a budget, she was concerned about the price.

“The cartridge for my vape is like 50 bucks,” she said. “Some of the edibles from the dispensary are quite expensive also.” Through a friend, she met her current distributor, a woman who makes pot treats such as cookies and mini muffins.

Her first experience was awkward. She ate a whole mini muffin, which contained a higher dosage than she’d imagined, given its size.

“Fourteen hours later I was finally coming out of my stupor,” she said. “I learned how to pace myself. I know better now. I just take a third of the mini muffin.”

While the managers of Sierra Wellness expect many people in situations similar to Peggy’s to become dispensary customers soon, Peggy plans to stick with her current dealer. She said that as a child of the Watergate and Kennedy assassination eras, she’s always been skeptical about potential abuses of power, including those by businesses.

“Money always seems to be the number-one goal for anybody, no matter what business they’re in,” she said, and the profit motives of dispensaries—plus the fact that she likes her current product and its current price—are enough to deter her indefinitely.

Magical mystery cure?

Let’s pause here for a moment to list all of the ailments potentially treatable by marijuana that sources for this article have mentioned so far: joint disease, spinal compression, autism, behavioral issues in children, sleep problems, PTSD, menstrual cramps, cancer, liver disease, arthritis and diabetes. Additional qualifying conditions in Nevada—the list varies from state to state—include AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Is marijuana starting to sound like a magical panacea? Is its list of touted benefits too long to be true?

Medical marijuana is nothing new. Its cultivation and use go back thousands of years.

Accoridng to the 2010 documentary film, What if Cannabis Cured Cancer, “Cannabis was often prescribed by doctors—and was part of every medical bag right through the early part of the [20th] century.” The film asserts that it was used for asthma and labor pains, given to “cranky babies,” and even taken by Queen Victoria for menstrual cramps.

But how could one substance really be effective in treating so many ailments? It turns out there’ve been dozens of studies showing marijuana’s effect on fighting almost all major cancers.

“Cannabis has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory,” according to the National Cancer Institute. But that still doesn’t fully explain the long list of conditions it’s advised for.

It turns out that many researchers say cannabis and the human body are a particularly good match.

“People have a hard time believing that cannabis can have all of these fantastic effects that are described,” said addiction medicine specialist Jeffrey Hergenrather, a source interviewed in the film. “But what we’re doing is we’re just stimulating a natural system that’s already there.” He’s talking about something called the endocannabinoid system in the human body, which is part of the nervous system and controls things like appetite, mood, memory and the way we experience pain. The endocannabinoids in the body have a similar structure to that of marijuana.

“Cannabinoids affect everything,” said Dr. Sean Devlin, physician and co-owner of Mynt Cannabis Dispensary. He advises cannabis use for a wide range of ailments, and he’s helped many patients transition from opioids—for which, he said, “the space between an effective dose and a lethal dose is narrow. “With cannabis, there is no lethal pharmaceutical dose,” he said. “You can cause sleepiness or paranoia, but you can’t kill em.”

“It’s not the end all be all,” said Devlin, however. He expressed concerns about dosage, especially now that marijuana will likely be in the hands of many new users. Vic and Peggy are among many who’ve encountered surprises with dosage, and while their experiences ranged from simply entertaining to temporarily incapacitating, there have been some more serious cases. In Colorado, within 15 months of legalization, high doses of cannabis were a factor in three deaths—two apparent suicides and a murder.

Within icreased access, Devlin would like to see increased education. “With edibles, you need to start slow,” he said. “You have to have the same respect as you do for alcohol.”