STORIES

Native American Tribe Becomes Cannabis Juggernaut in Las Vegas

By Chris Kudialis on February 19, 2019

Benny Tso wears a dark green hoodie with a beaded necklace and a large medallion bearing the word NuWu spelled out in white.

The word, which in the Las Vegas Paiute native language means “our people,” will likely be remembered by future generations of the 56-member tribe for its economic value. NuWu is the title of the Paiutes’ two cannabis dispensaries on tribal lands in Las Vegas, making ripples across the U.S. and internationally for its size, innovation and—like the city it’s based in—flair for the outrageous.

“We want to be different,” Tso said. “Cannabis is the economic future of the tribe.”

Tso, a burly, tattoo-clad man in his early 40s, engineered the opening of the massive 15,800 square-foot mega-dispensary that claims to be the world’s biggest cannabis store by retail space. Opened in October 2017, NuWu Cannabis Marketplace added the country’s first fast food-style cannabis drive-thru two months later and, thanks to Nevada law that prevents non-tribal dispensaries from having drive-thrus, remains Nevada’s only dispensary with such an option. Last summer, the Paiutes drew the attention of ESPN and Sports Illustrated after becoming the first U.S.-based cannabis company to partner with a professional sports team: the USL’s Las Vegas Lights.

In November, the dispensary was featured in a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the following month sold the most expensive cannabis product to date—an $11,000 gold leaf-wrapped cannabis cigar—to a visiting Los Angeles buyer.

The Paiutes mega-dispensary on a plot of land less than one mile north of downtown Las Vegas’ popular Fremont Street—where 18 million annual tourists visit each year per local authorities—attracts up to 3,000 daily shoppers. NuWu North, a second smaller dispensary opened last month on a separate tribal plot of land in the northwest part of town, hopes to attract another 1,000 daily customers.

The facilities’ successes have been a welcome financial boon for the tribe, Tso said. Its primary income streams before cannabis were a pair of smoke shops and golf courses. Both once-profitable industries have declined rapidly over the past decade, and competition with the Las Vegas Strip essentially eliminated any potential profit from opening another casino.

Tso, who served as the Paiutes’ chairman for 12 years before stepping down last July, partnered with new tribal chairman Chris Spotted Eagle to pursue cannabis back in 2015. At the time, cannabis was medical-only and not yet profitable in Nevada.

“We saw the potential there for the future, with recreational cannabis likely coming up, and we thought it was the right time to get involved,” Spotted Eagle said.

While the two Paiute leaders envisioned future success in a recreational-only model, the road to reefer riches hasn’t always been smooth.

In early 2016, the Paiutes partnered with New Mexico-based Ultra Health Cannabis to build a 2,500 square-foot medical cannabis dispensary and cultivation facility near Snow Mountain, where NuWu North now stands. That deal fell through less than a month after the partners broke ground.

It took that well-publicized failure and a special compact with the Nevada governor’s office in the 2017 state legislature for the Paiutes to make their cannabis dreams a reality.

Tso, Spotted Eagle and then-Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval worked to pass Senate Bill 375 during the legislative session. The landmark law opened the door for legal negotiations on the use and sale of cannabis on tribal lands, while also permitting the governor’s office to bypass federal laws limiting commerce talks between Nevada tribes and Congress. That meant the Paiutes no longer needed to partner with a third-party dispensary company like Ultra Health to open their own cannabis facility.

Tso and Spotted Eagle, anticipating the bill would pass, had already begun building their first marketplace, with plans to do it bigger than the 45 dispensaries already located across the Las Vegas valley. A simple, European-inspired waiting room-free design with massive 30-foot glass windows made it easy for NuWu to quickly build and open. The design provided customers with an indoor view of the downtown skyline, less than one mile from where 18 million annual tourists visit downtown Las Vegas.

“In true Las Vegas style, we went all-in,” Spotted Eagle said, smiling.

The new tribal chairman said tribal cannabis has benefited the state's cannabis industry as a whole. NuWu carries more than 900 different products from nearly all of the state’s 200+ combined cultivation and production facilities, and Spotted Eagle said the Paiutes have written seven-figure checks for some of their product purchases. Some cultivators and producers, which bled money fighting over only 50,000 state-registered cardholders during Nevada’s two years as a medical cannabis-only state in 2015 and 2016, are now thriving thanks in part to giant purchases from the state’s largest cannabis dispensary.

Jillian Nelson, Vice President of Operations at Evergreen Organix, has sold to NuWu since the Paiutes opened the doors to their first dispensary in 2017. Nelson, whose production facility is the largest supplier of concentrates and edible cannabis products in Nevada, said NuWu has purchased nearly all of Evergreen Organix’s items at some point, including vape pens, Rick Simpson Oil, chocolates and even flower. Nelson called the Pauites “a very ethical group of people to work with,” adding their presence is “very positive for the industry in general.”

Same for Thomas Calabrese, spokesman for Las Vegas-based producer and cultivator QualCan. Calabrese, whose facility sells more than a dozen combined flower, edible and concentrate products to the Paiutes, said the tribe's consistent orders has helped QualCan—one of Nevada’s longest-licensed cultivators—maintain a healthy cash flow.

“They set the blueprint for the industry for how everybody should conduct business,” he said.

NuWu’s example has also sparked the interest of tribes across the U.S. and Canada, Spotted Eagle said. Requests for tours from other Native American leaders have become so frequent, the Paiutes have incorporated a vetting system to determine which tribes are serious about opening a facility versus those just traveling for a Las Vegas vacation and selfie photos at NuWu.

States have different laws on cannabis and restrictions on a tribe’s ability to grow and sell the plant, and Spotted Eagle notes there’s no “one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter formula,” even for U.S.-based tribes, until the plant becomes federally legal.

In the meantime, the tribe is happy to educate its Native American brethren while ensuring the Las Vegas Paiutes are an economic driver in Nevada for decades to come.

“It’s about all of us in the industry and how we can all work to make it better,” Spotted Eagle said. “We’re pushing the bar, and we encourage other people to do the same.”

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