Paiute Tribe Leads Las Vegas Cannabis Industry Through COVID and Beyond
Curtis Anderson had seen his fair share of opportunities during three scattered terms as chairman of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. But nothing ever came close to what the 75-year-old former school bus driver caught in his fourth term.
NuWu Cannabis Marketplace opened as the world’s largest legal cannabis store back in 2017, just months after Nevada launched its adult-use market. By the time Anderson took the reins from former chairmen Benny Tso and Chris Spotted Eagle in 2019, NuWu and the recently opened NuWu North were bona fide cash cows—landing the tribe some $4 million in sales each month and funding medical care, scholarships and a host of other benefits for its 62 local members.
The dispensaries helped the tribe get featured front-and-center across marijuana publications and international mainstream media outlets. When Anderson took over, the Paiutes were just opening their own tasting lounge and had plans for a massive cannabis dayclub-style pool venue—complete with thumping DJs, bottle service and all the swimsuit-clad young-20s staffers you could imagine.
“NuWu was already an empire by then,” he said. “And the sky was the limit for us.”
Almost as soon as the veteran chairman stepped back into the tribe’s top position, though, he ran into a challenge nobody could have foreseen.
Feeling Out the Virus
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, it shut down the entire Vegas economy. A special compact crafted by Tso, Spotted Eagle and then-state Sen. Tick Segerblom years ago gave the tribe the legal ability to play by its own rules—so Anderson could have stayed open if he wanted to.
Instead, he followed suit with the Vegas Valley’s other 50 dispensary operators out of “an abundance of caution.” But people still wanted marijuana. As 2020 went on, local demand for the plant skyrocketed as locals sat couped up at home and cashed massive stimulus and unemployment checks.
While NuWu’s massive 15,800-sq.-ft. lobby sat closed, Anderson decided to reopen the drive-thru after a couple weeks. He saw right away the business he’d been missing out on.
“We had cars lined up a mile down the street,” he said. “You would have thought there was a major convention happening on our reservation.”
Serving hundreds of cars each day did wonders for the Paiutes’ balance sheet. But if not for some quick thinking, it could have been a logistical nightmare.
Scrambling to Beef Up Staff
Anderson’s first step was to add staff so NuWu could keep cars moving through quickly. The Paiutes brought on 60 temporary workers laid off by other dispensaries during the pandemic to create a Chick-fil-A style drive-thru experience for customers. Having worked at other dispensaries, the new employees already had their state-required “agent” cards and could start the day they were hired. The drive-thru became so efficient with the extra staff, a company consultant said, the average customer received an order only 24 seconds after placing it.
Next, the tribe had to make sure its supply chain could keep up as the marijuana flew off NuWu’s shelves. Unlike most Vegas Valley dispensaries, the Paiutes don’t own a cultivation or production facility. But they have the next best thing: other cultivators and producers operating on the tribe’s reservation.
Anderson didn’t have to look far to get his weed. And since non-tribal businesses working on the reservation must also follow tribal law, the Paiute chairman had the ultimate say—not the state—in when and how long the neighboring growers and edible-makers could stay open.
“They kept working through the pandemic, and they were also able to use some temp staffers,” he said.
Delivery was another hurdle. As demand for home delivery shot through the roof, the tribe brought in a third-party service to drive cannabis products from NuWu to customers’ residences. To make it worth the effort and root out hundreds of smaller orders, the Paiutes set a minimum purchase of $150 for home delivery.
“You really had to do that, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to keep up,” Anderson said. “There were just too many orders.”
A Model for Success
How does a tiny tribe with little more than a golf course and a tobacco store suddenly become a premier cannabis power player in a major metropolitan city?
The Paiutes began calculating their move back in 2016, after a failed partnership left them high-and-dry on a proposed medical dispensary. A chance meeting between Segerblom and the tribe’s main cannabis investor, based in Portland, set the table for a bill in 2017 that let Nevada tribes open their own cannabis stores. Rec was about to pass, and partnering with a third-party was no longer necessary.
Within weeks of the bill becoming law, Tso and Spotted Eagle quietly opened the world’s largest dispensary at the time on a piece of the Paiutes’ reservation just two miles north of the Strip. They didn’t spend a single dime on marketing NuWu because they figured the dispensary would speak for itself.
Just weeks after opening shop, NuWu was carrying 1,000 products from all but a small handful of the state’s hundreds of cultivators and producers. NuWu also had Nevada’s only drive-thru thanks to Segerblom’s law passed earlier that year. Local municipalities across the state had imposed a drive-thru ban, but the Paiutes could play by their own rules.
Tso and his investors then came up with a host of other successful ideas: a $11,000 weed cigar, a live spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live and a partnership with the Las Vegas Lights soccer team.
Finally, Tso opened a second, smaller store some 20 miles northeast on another plot of its tribal land. NuWu North was only 6,000 square feet, but its drive-thru kept people in the northwest Vegas Valley coming through.
And the Vegas Tasting Room, opened in late 2019, is exactly as its name would suggest: $5 for a small blunt, $8 for a bong rip and $9 dabs in a luxuriously appointed area inside the Paiutes’ flagship dispensary.
The tribe’s portfolio, essentially built during a span of just two years, has the Paiutes still on top. And its competitors readily admit it.
David Goldwater, a prominent cannabis lobbyist and owner of Inyo Dispensary just east of the Strip, said just two dispensaries stand head and shoulders above the rest of the industry. Even with the changing landscape as out-of-state corporations move in to buy up local companies, NuWu’s infrastructure and preferential state policies have ensured the tribe’s success.
“It’s the Paiutes and Planet 13,” Goldwater said. “Then there’s everyone else.”
Staying Ahead of the Curve
The Vegas Tasting Room won’t be alone for much longer. In June, the Nevada Legislature passed Assembly Bill 341 to legalize cannabis consumption venues across the state. Regulators have set a target date for Oct. 1 to finalize the new rules and begin taking applications, meaning the first lounges could open as early as Spring 2022.
The tribe’s two dispensaries are also facing increasing competition as multi-state operators like Curaleaf and Green Thumb continue to expand their footprints in Sin City. While the Paiutes currently serve some 4,500 customers each day, that number stands to be threatened as more dispensaries open across the Vegas Valley this year.
With Tso and Spotted Eagle out of the picture after moving on to other non-tribal marijuana ventures, Anderson admits the Paiutes’ cannabis plans are not quite as ambitious as they were before COVID. The 11-acre plot of land next to NuWu’s flagship dispensary, leveled off back in 2019 to make way for a dayclub-style mega-lounge, remains vacant.
But for the tribe’s chairman and its members, the status quo will do for now. Anderson said NuWu isn’t done innovating, it’s just waiting to see how the market evolves.
“We do a lot of things very well and have an incredibly loyal customer base of locals,” he said. “We still serve tons of people from the Strip, too. As long as we’re here and doing what we do best, we’re going to be a huge part of the industry for many years to come.”