In Oregon and Nevada, buying cannabis is all about the “little differences”

Can California learn from its neighboring states’ easier regulations and operations?

The Mynt dispensary thrives in the shadows of Reno’s downtown casinos.

The Mynt dispensary thrives in the shadows of Reno’s downtown casinos.

Photo by Ken Magri

When I visit dispensaries in Oregon or Nevada, that quote from Pulp Fiction comes to mind.

“It’s the little differences,” John Travolta’s character says, describing Europe. “They got the same shit over there that we have over here. It’s just that there, it’s a little different.”

On a recent vacation, a friend and I visited several dispensaries in Oregon and Nevada. While California fine-tunes its emergency cannabis regulations, our neighbors are ahead of us on adult-use sales. Since legalization passed in both states they’ve made adjustments, resulting in smoother operations and higher tax revenues. Now, can California learn from Oregon and Nevada?

Some of the differences are obvious. At Eugene’s Sweet Tree Farms dispensary, for example, we noticed there was no security guard nor waiting area. As we strolled into a spacious showroom, we approached the counter and peered into the glass cases.

“This is the medical counter, guys,” the budtender told us. “The recreational side is over there.”

Oregon changed its retail laws last year. After first separating medical and recreational cannabis, dispensaries can now sell both—and most do.

“We’re from California. Where are your security guards?” I asked the budtender. He laughed, but didn’t know.

The security differences are the result of each state’s various legal requirements. While California regulations are specific, mandating door locks and guards, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission only asks dispensaries to offer “a security plan” that can be approved.

“You’re selling half-gram vape cartridges for $45? That’s expensive,” I said. “Look over here, my friend,” our budtender answered. “Here is a pure distillate cartridge and it tastes great, for $30.”

I bought the cheaper cartridge and a three-pack of Rogue River Valley half-gram pre-rolls.

“Is my California medical ID good here?” I asked. The budtender said no, but pointed out that the price difference for the joints was only $2.

Oregon’s medical cards cost $200 annually—twice California’s rate. Many patients can’t use enough cannabis to justify the expense. As such, some have let their prescriptions lapse and switch over to recreational cannabis for the savings. As in California, medical marijuana status here increasingly means less and medical-only dispensaries are quickly vanishing.

Pulling out of Eugene I asked my friend, “Did that budtender ever ask for our driver’s licenses?” “No,” he said. “My surprise was that we were not ID’d.”

Oregon and Nevada only require proof that customers are at least 21, and that’s never a problem for baby-boomers like us.

Oregon kept micro-businesses in mind when finalizing its laws. Retail license fees top-off at $4,700, compared to California’s fees, which range between $5,000-$72,000. The lower threshold enables small businesses to join the green rush, like Canna Royal dispensary in Veneta. We stopped for concentrates and, once again, found no security guard, no waiting room and nobody who wanted to see an identification.

Nevada went legal with retail sales in July of 2017, six months earlier than expected. Reports came in quickly about inventory issues and long lines of curious customers.

“Those stories were mostly media-driven,” said Emma, our budtender at The Dispensary NV in Reno. She explained that their store remained fully stocked during that crucial start by coordinating distribution with sister stores in southern Nevada.

The long lines, however, were an issue throughout the state a year ago. Then, we flashed our California prescriptions and went straight in after filling out a form.

This year, recreational customers walked straight past us at Silver State Relief in Sparks, while we filled out medical forms. Time-consuming, but it saved us from Nevada’s 8.25 percent sales tax. With senior and first-time discounts added on, we saved even more.

Nestled in the shadow of Harrah’s Hotel & Casino, tourists frequent downtown Reno’s Mynt Cannabis dispensary more than any other dispensary, and the prices reflect that. Our budtender Jovan didn’t apologize for the $50 cost on a half-gram of Virtue LV’s Snake Eyes. He just said we wouldn’t be disappointed.

Dispensaries in Reno, Sparks and Carson City display smartly appointed interiors, and the budtenders know their products. All product labels list potency, terpenes, the harvest date, the test date, the packaging date, a lot number and your own name.

It can seem a little overwhelming, but it’s proven effective. Cannabis sales generated more than $50 million in tax revenues for the state in its first fiscal year.

“Our first year of adult-use sales has gone very smoothly,” said Stephanie Klapstein of the Nevada Department of Taxation. “We attribute much of our success … to the fact that our medical program already had in place solid, well-written regulations that we were able to build on.”

In California’s first six months of legalization, it collected fewer taxes than predicted, despite whopping tax rates. High license fees and over-regulation kept small businesses out. Mandated lab-testing forced the liquidation of untested products at bargain prices. That caused a lull in dispensary traffic, followed by shortages and a statewide spike in prices.

California starts with a grower’s tax of $9.25 per ounce, as well as a 15 percent excise tax. After that, local governments add their own cannabis taxes in varying amounts. Now, add state and city sales taxes, and the total tax passed along to customers is often over 50 percent of the purchase price. Bills to lower the excise tax have been introduced but are struggling in the legislature.

By comparison, both of our neighbor states have lower cannabis taxes. Oregon set its rate at 17 percent, allowing local governments to add another 3 percent, for a maximum of 20 percent, with no state sales tax. It collected $73 million in its first year. Nevada cultivators pay 15 percent on their wholesale products, and retail customers pay an additional 10 percent tax, for a total of 25 percent.

Federal law prohibits cannabis from being transported across state lines, so when purchasing in Oregon, you are buying Oregon weed. Even if a box of pre-rolls in Nevada is called “California Finest,” the small print reminds you it was “manufactured in Nevada.”

Naturally, we were curious about quality from one state to the other. The three Rogue River joints we bought were surprisingly good. The half-gram size was more convenient and the quality made us go back and buy more. The distillate vape cartridge didn’t taste that great, however. The concentrate purchased in Veneta was strong and stoney. With a sweet flavor and the perfect texture for crumbling over a pipe bowl, it was our best buy at $34 a gram. Whether Oregon has the best cannabis or not, it certainly offers the best prices.

What do our neighbors admire about us? Oregon wants to host legal on-site consumption events like Sacramento’s recent High Times Cannabis Cup. A bill working its way through the legislature would allow the OLCC to authorize them. Nevada already allows big events, but many want to find a daily-use option for tourists. A new ordinance written by Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin would allow commercial cannabis lounges inside city limits, but hasn’t passed yet.

After our vacation, my friend and I concluded that Oregon is more convenient with better prices, and Nevada has more thoughtfully designed dispensaries. Each state’s little differences made for a better buying experience. Still, due to its sheer abundance, California continues to sell the finest cannabis— while offering far more choices.

If the Golden State ever learns to combine our neighbors’ best practices with the quality of Cali-grown pot, our dispensaries will become the gold standard by which others are measured.