Road Trip: Las Vegas, Nevada

By Sharon Letts

“Las Vegas” translated is “The Meadows,” once the last watering hole after the ice age’s glaciers melted, leaving the valley lush and green – forming pools of water that ultimately became Hoover Damn, and a point of interest in the now barren valley.

In the late 1930s Thomas Hull, owner of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, had his eye on the desert, and built the first casino in downtown Las Vegas, opening the fancy western-themed “El Cortez Hotel” in 1941. At that time Vegas was a weekend getaway from Los Angles for rebel rousers – a place to drink, gamble and get a quickie divorce.

Soon after the El Cortez was a hit, Hollywood reporter Billy Wilkerson dreamed up the “Flamingo Hotel” in an attempt to attract high rollers. The name was inspired by Bugsy Malone’s starlet and sometimes mob courier girlfriend, Virginia Hill, after her long, skinny legs. Funded by mobsters, The Flamingo became the start of a string of hotels along what is still referred to as “The Vegas Strip.”

As a child visiting Vegas in the 1960’s with my parents, I remember Highway 15 cutting straight through town and into the lights. It was, and still is, a magical experience to arrive in Vegas, with its metropolis of fun rising up from the desert floor. The casinos were built as gaudy palaces, with winding driveways circling fountains with Greek Gods looking on; greeting star-struck visitors hoping to strike it rich via card tables and slot machines.

My sister and I were only welcome poolside at the casinos or inside “Circus, Circus;” playing our own slots via rows of pin-ball machines upstairs, overlooking the adult-filled casino below, where my dad played Keno and mom camped out in front of a nickel slot machine.

Our coffee table at home hosted ashtrays from The Flamingo, Cesar’s Palace, and The Golden Nugget - relics from the old strip, where casino lights still give the illusion of daytime at 3 a.m., and light shows entertain out front for free.

Winning Green

Since medical cannabis was voted into effect via Nevada Senate Bill 374 with a 17-4 vote during its State Legislative session in 2013, Vegas has embraced the culture. Just a year prior to pending legalization, the historic “Bonanza Gift Shop,” Vegas’ largest, block-sized tourist attraction, now sports cannabis leaf emblazoned ashtrays and shot glasses, declaring “High Rollers,” in a whole new light. (My anti-Hippie dad would roll over in his grave at the sight.)

Just four retail shops were open by the time the city’s second annual “Marijuana Business Conference & Expo” took palce by Marijuana Business Daily. I was able to visit two, “Releaf” and “Inyo,” both beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities staffed with knowledgeable and friendly reps.

As a patient from another medically legal state, I’m in luck in Nevada, as they recognize my rights to safe access of my good medicine. You just need to bring your letter of recommendation and an I.D. from your home state.

Getting Relief at ReLeaf

While in Releaf I had the good fortune to chat with longtime Vegas resident, Mr. Johnston, who shared with me he had arrived to the city in 1959 as a working musician. Not allowed to enter the casinos through the fancy circular driveways this writer had traversed with her family years ago, Mr. Johnston, due to the color of his skin, had to enter through the back.

I mentioned the celebrity cover for the issue I was working on was to feature Jimi Hendrix, and he shared with me that he once had the good fortune of playing with the late guitarist, remembering his last performance in California at The Monterey Pop Festival as he stood on the sidelines.

It was a surreal encounter, as the lineage of the stigma with black musicians and cannabis runs deep. One can imagine Sammy Davis, Jr. burning at the rear entrance with some of the greats - black and white entertainers at the time, for the herb knows no color.

Louis Armstrong was no stranger to the herb or Vegas, and was an outspoken proponent of the plant at a time when it was taboo, stating, “I just won’t carry on with such fear over nothing and I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus – and he wouldn’t dare. Because he feels the same way I do about it.”

Healing at Inyo

While filling out my patient intake form at Inyo Dispensary I noted a woman in a wheel chair attempting to fill out her paperwork with the help of her grown daughter. She had dropped the clipboard on her leg and was in extreme neuropathy pain and sobbing.

My heart sank and I handed her my vape pen for quick relief, but cameras were watching and patients are not allowed to medicate inside, nor are they allowed to share. She took my pen outside and felt better, but I soon learned she was there just for flower to smoke. We laughed at the thought of her being able to pop an Oxy inside a pharmacy, but taking a hit of a natural plant-based medicine in a dispensary is off-limits.

She had a morphine pump implanted in her body, but smoking gave the most relief – as is common with opiates and other pain killers, cannabis enhances the effect. Patients can still have pain on up to 300 mg. of morphine, but when they smoke, it gives immediate relief. Do away with the morphine and ingest, and do away with the pain, but patients are just beginning to learn the difference.

I made a deal with her and said I would help pay for a topical cream or edible tincture if she’d like to try it. She ended up buying flower and a transdermal patch made by “Mary’s Medicinals,” a Denver-based company that produces CBD only products (from cannabis) that can be shipped across state lines, due to its low THC count of 0.03 percent. She told me to keep my money and was grateful for the help.

Testing, to be Sure

One evening Susan and Curtis Bunce were watching the news on television when they noted one laboratory in Nevada getting its license to test medical cannabis. Susan said a light bulb went off above her head, as she surmised it probably would take more than one lab to test all of Nevada’s finest.

One thing led to another, and as is often the case in this seemingly magical industry, someone knew someone who “used to work at a lab.”

That “someone” turned out to be none-other-than Savino Sguera, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Columbia University; and former Laboratory Director for the first ever cannabis testing lab in California, Steep Hill Labs. Not a bad connection.

“Savino is now our laboratory director, and his business partner, Marco, is now our laboratory manager,” Susan said of the team they were able to put together with a combined 80 years of lab experience, with the majority of staff said to be women.

Product is coming and the 20 samples per week DB Labs is currently testing will soon jump to 60 samples per day in the immediate future.

“That number will soon expand to 100 samples per day as the production increases in the New Year,” she explained.

Nevada currently has the most stringent testing seen in the world’s cannabis market, and Bunce said BD Labs uses the most state-of-the-art equipment available, with rigorous standards.

Savino, who also consults for the cannabis industry regarding extraction and analysis, said the lab is currently opti-mixing its output efficiency and refining its methods to make room for the onslaught of samples to come.

“We are also looking at the possibility of seeing more analytes - new cannabinoids, more required pesticides, lower tolerance levels, and so forth,” Savino explained. “With such an expansive market due to open in Las Vegas and elsewhere, Nevada has the potential to become the next major source of cannabis information and research.”

The advantage of coming into the game behind Colorado and Washington, Savino said, is being able to share what’s learned in every arena.

“When different doctors, cultivators, producers, and especially laboratories, begin to pool the information gathered on this enormous set of samples,” he said. “We will have an invaluable new insight into the cannabis plant. For instance, how does the plant handle different chemical additives and contaminants? How can we identify strains based on chemical profile? How do growing conditions control this profile – and how do these chemical profiles translate to pharmacodynamics of cannabis medicine?”

One thing Savino said we must remember about cannabis is that it is still a plant, and unlike pharmaceuticals, its effects cannot be narrowed down and attributed to one or two chemicals that can be isolated and purified – although some companies do take that approach.

“A majority of cannabis’ medicinal qualities stem from the as-of-yet unknown interplay between hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes that currently only living plants can produce in the correct amounts,” Savino continued. “As such, the best cannabis will come from the healthiest plants, and healthy plants are in constant symbiotic balance with thousands of different bacteria, fungi, and even parasites – with most of these microbes easily kept at bay by a healthy human immune system.”

Going Green

Former attorney Chris Van Hook is founder, program director, and chief Inspector for “Clean Green,” a certification program for farmers, in a “start to finish” inspection covering all areas where crops would be worked with, stored, and/or cured.

Prior to its inception in 2004 the company was working closely with the USDA National Organic Program, certifying organic farms, so the transition to cannabis was a natural one.

With nine inspectors working their own regions, Clean Green has been able to spread out and help many, currently certifying five states, with applications pending in five more.

“Eighty farmers were certified last year alone, but all told we’ve helped more than one thousand come into compliance since we began,” he said.

Green Life Productions in the town of Parhump was the first farm to be certified in the State of Nevada, and Van Hook said, “Its facility is an excellent example of how top quality indoor cannabis can be grown in a manner with very low consumption – and in a remarkably sustainable manner.”

Van Hook said that GLP uses LED lighting, which does not require heat removal via either air-conditioning or fans, making the reduction of energy in Nevada’s harsh environment easy, while producing a high quality flower, with the lowest electricity consumed in a region that demands energy use.

“Its continual reuse and rebuilding of the soils in place further reduces the overall footprint of the facility, by not having to replace their soils with each crop – which would require trucking it in and out of the valley,” Van Hook explained.

Farming Nevada

The cannabis market is still being developed in Nevada, with farms and product being procured as I write this, leaving dispensary shelves a bit wanting for the moment, with Green Life Productions (GLP) able to acquire a license and a step-up in the market.

Parhump is a small town about an hour out of Las Vegas proper, and to the east of Death Valley. GLP is an indoor farm, warranted by the harsh conditions of the Nevada desert – which means snow and frost in the winter and a short outdoor season with temperatures climbing to 120F in August.

The difference between GLP and a traditional indoor cannabis farm is, they grow in large, square beds, with cover crops to feed the soil, and soil regeneration via organic composting – otherwise known as sustainable farming.

But the real story of GLP lies in its co-founder’s past. Steven Cantwell was born and raised in the tiny desert town. Bored and challenged, Cantwell refers to himself as a “troubled youth,” and began training in martial arts as a diversion.

At 17 the local “Floyds Ace Hardware” sponsored him for a move to Las Vegas to live, train, and compete as a professional. It was a good move, and by the time he was 20 Cantwell was signed by the WEC, and soon after won his first title at 21, making him the WEC Light Heavy Weight Champion. And then the injuries came.

“I started fighting with serious injuries,” he explained. “I knew the dangers of pain pills from what close friends and family had been through with them, and knew I had to find an alternative way to manage what was sure to be a lifetime of chronic pain.”

Cantwell began researching, studying, and testing cannabis as medicine, realizing the benefits of the plant, with some reservations, enlisting his longtime partner, Kouanin Villa, to help him.

“Steve and I met when we were 17, when he moved into the gym where I worked,” Villa explained. “Twelve years later we are still happily working together growing cannabis in the former ‘Floyd’s Ace Hardware’ building where it all began.”

Villa shared that Cantwell didn’t always just farm cannabis, with his love of farming starting with fruits and vegetable gardens at home, then transitioning to coral reef fish tanks, then to hydroponics and working with nutrients.

“I began growing in soil first with rock wool cubes, then coco coir, and bottled nutrients, to mixing and recycling super soil – to finally what I believe to be the safest, most sustainable style on the planet earth – no till, organic, living soil.”

Cover crops are used as companion planting, just as real backdoor, organic farming dictates, with biodiversity and rich soil the outcome, and less pests.

“Our goal is to introduce and grow healthy, beneficial life that outcompetes negative pests and pathogens, creating symbiotic relationships above and below our soil,” he concluded.

What this means is, GLP’s bud, and subsequent medicine made from it, is clean, pure, and loaded with beneficial compounds.

Truth and wellness go hand in hand in this industry, and Cantwell, with Villa, say they are in this for the long haul. Putting off kids for three Rottweilers, while growing some of Nevada’s finest.

“We feel true healing can only take place when we first free ourselves from the legal and moral convictions both society and our legal system has put on cannabis,” Cantwell shared.

From Silver, to Gold, to Green

Nevada has had the advantage of watching what other states do, be it medical or recreational, for a very long time. We already know the money is there, the green tourist trade is a given, and they are getting ready in a very smart way – beginning with testing all products from seed to shelf; farming with the cleanest and most efficient methods; and making medicine for real ailments, not just prepping for recreation.

What this traveling writer has noticed covering, now five states via my Road Trip series, is when a state legalizes, more people get helped and healed. For legalizing helps a medicine maker feel safe to come out of the green closet to share for the greater good.

Whether you are a high roller, or heavily medicated in Sin City, you will be healed with this plant – fiscally, or otherwise. The plant and its people continue to prevail. 

Reference List:

Marijuana Policy Project/Nevada MMJ Laws:

Americans for Safe Access/How to, Nevada:

Las Vegas Releaf dispensary:

Inyo Dispensary:

DB Labs:

Green Life Productions:

Cutline for terpene viles:

The terpene bottles hold a small amount of homogenized plant sample sealed into a headspace vial. The vial gets heated, and a small sample of the vapors produced are removed with a needle and injected into the gas chromatography column by the headspace sampler. Here the vapor can be separated into its various organic chemical components before each one is detected and measured by the mass spectrometer. The same type of analysis is also performed on extracts and oils to analyze the content of any solvent residues. 

This article first appeared in issue 121 of Weed World Magazine