As Las Vegas Begins Selling Recreational Marijuana, Dispensary Owner Talks "Entertainment Community" Support

Edison Graff/Stardust Fallout
Essence in Las Vegas

Enthusiastic buyers began lining up hours before the July 1 midnight start of sales.

Angelenos now have one more reason to hop on a flight to Sin City: At midnight on July 1, around three dozen dispensaries in Las Vegas opened their doors for recreational marijuana purchases.

At Essence, the only dispensary on the Las Vegas Strip, the energy was bubbling over from more than 200 people who started lining up around 8 p.m. “It’s like Christmas morning,” “welcome to the future" and, of course, the ubiquitous “let’s get high” rang out from the exuberant crowd, as well as from passersby on foot and in cars. The ages and socioeconomic profiles of the eager buyers ran the gamut from millennial hipsters to seniors, and the line for valet parking stretched outside the parking lot and down the street.

Essence, one block north from the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue and across from Bonanza Gift Shop, is owned by former gaming executive Armen Yemenidjian; it opened a year and a half ago to medical patients. The dispensary also boasts an impressive, state-of-the-art, 54,000-square-foot cultivation facility a few blocks off the south end of the Strip.

Marijuana sales are prohibited in the resort corridor, and Essence sits opportunistically at the tail end of that area in the stretch of motels that connects the Strip to downtown Las Vegas.

Nevada voted in November to make recreational cannabis available to anyone 21 and over with a valid ID — it’s the fifth state to legalize (after Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska) and the fastest to move from legalization to execution. The shift is expected to be a major boon for the city’s tourism, which already sees more than 40 million people a year. Recreational marijuana in its first year will pump about $400 million into Las Vegas’ economy, according to impact studies, with 50 percent to 60 percent of those sales expected to come from visitors, adding a new epithet to Sin City: the Amsterdam of the West.

Yemenidjian is expecting high traffic from visitors from California, where the legalization of recreation marijuana use doesn’t officially take effect until 2018; about 27 percent of visitors to Vegas come from Southern California. Without naming names, Yemenidjian adds, “We've had tremendous support from the entertainment community.” He has bet big on the impact marijuana will have on Las Vegas’ tourism industry — he gave up his gaming license to run the dispensary.

“I was vice president of casino marketing, casino operations for Tropicana, and I went in front of the gaming commission, the gaming control board, and they gave me an ultimatum and said, ‘You gotta choose one or the other,’ and, obviously, you can see what my choice was,” he says. “It's been a really interesting transition — [a background in] gaming really helped from a high cash-volume perspective and compliance perspective. There's no more regulated industry than gaming, and I think that's what made the state more comfortable with our application, understanding that we are compliant. We have that background.”

In true Vegas form, could a star ambassador or representative be in Essence’s future? “We've had many celebrities reach out to us and ask us about opportunities to be ambassadors for us and work with us and be a part of what we're creating here,” says Yemenidjian. “It's so early right now, we just want to see where this is going to take us first before making any commitments, but we're excited about the future and the future of Las Vegas.” He estimates that consumption lounges are the next step in Vegas. “Giving folks a place to get together as a community and consume cannabis — I think that's the future,” he says.

Just after midnight, as the first customer strolled into Essence, he was met with thunderous applause from budtenders and an “entrance song” befitting one of Vegas’ prize fights: Drake’s “Started From the Bottom.” The customer completed his purchase in a matter of minutes and walked out of the door with a simple white plastic bag and a smile.