Don Knight keeps a “hard times” stockpile in the basement of his turn-of-the-century bungalow in Elko, Nev.
Dozens of tightly sealed ammo cans are stacked in the corner, each packed with a handful of shotgun shells, a 2,000-calorie vacuum-sealed military food brick, a stash of water purifying tablets and a nugget of his favorite marijuana strain: Gorilla Glue #4.
“That’s the good stuff,” said Knight, a 32-year-old gold mine engineer.
Knight grew up in Elko, a would-be ghost town if not for the gold.
Elko sits in the middle of a whole lot of desert, flecked with green prairie and flanked by the stunning Ruby Mountains to the south.
Downtown has vibrant neon motel signs and the tallest taxidermied polar bear in the world, a 10-foot, 4-inch beast named “The White King,” that since 1957 has been stuck in a glass case in the smoky back gambling hall of the Commercial Hotel and Casino.
The eastern Nevada boomtown is one of the last Wild West holdouts, where betting and brothels thrive in a state built on vice.
But, as of Jan. 1, there’s a new — or at least newly legal — vice in town: marijuana. It’s not for sale in any stores since the town has a moratorium on both medical and recreational dispensaries, but weed thrives here in an underground market.
Fifty-four percent of Nevadans voted in the last election to legalize recreational marijuana, making it legal to possess, even in Elko County, where the same percent voted no.
It’s not a simple discussion in Elko. For many, getting stoned is a violation of faith, and for others it could lead to a failed drug test at work, or, worse, a slip-up on the job.
“It’s hard work,” Knight said of working in the gold mines. “People die.”
However, marijuana has taken root in this Western enclave in surprising ways. A new medicine, a new agriculture, a new kind of Marlboro man on the horizon.
Some even argue that there’s a new gold in this town, and it’s green.
The first time Knight smoked pot in high school, he threw $200 worth (he’d bought it for $5 from a clueless friend who’d stolen it from his brother) down the toilet because he became a paranoid mess.
While he didn’t abandon weed entirely, it was not until he returned from six years in the U.S. Army and worked as a whitewater rafting guide at a West Virginia summer camp run by an elder veteran and some hippies that he became a true advocate.
“They had every strain of marijuana that you can imagine, and that’s where I first tried that Gorilla Glue,” said Knight.
Knight is no hippie. He wears a “Make America Great Again” hat, campaigned for President Donald Trump and still hasn’t washed off the back of his truck where his friend wrote “Liberals Destroy America” in thick, blue paint.
But he credits hippies with the calm and spirituality that he found after his military service, something a lot of his comrades struggled to find.
“One of them would be sitting, plucking the banjo around the campfire, and you got one bowl that’s going round, when it lands on you, you gotta pack in some of your own stuff and keep passing it around. It was just an awesome experience,” Knight said.
Coming back to Elko was difficult since people are friendly, but mum, about Mary Jane.
“As far as marijuana goes here, just about everybody is pro-marijuana,” he said.
The problem for miners is, there’s much to be lost with just one puff. Random drug testing is frequent for those who pull off the physical labor.
“There’s a lot of money to be made, and I feel bad for the people that don’t work in the mining industry but live here because they struggle,” he said. “The rest of us can buy a brand new truck every few years, we can buy a $300,000 to $400,000 house and, you know, pay it off if we want in 10 years. We can have all the snowmobiles, motorcycles, jet skis, four-wheelers, everything that we want.”
Many of the newbies start out with a $50,000 salary, but a lot of folks start out with six-digit salaries, he said.
Some of the mines recently told their employees that they could use cannabis if they had medical marijuana cards, which used to cost about $100, but now cost about $50 now since recent legislation. In Knight’s crew alone, about a third of them went and bought cards after getting a physician’s recommendation, the equivalent to a prescription in the marijuana industry.
When mining officials realized how many of their employees had acquired cards, though, they also realized that cannabis can last in the system for a month, long after the high is gone.
They changed their minds. How would they know who was high and who wasn’t?
The last time Knight was actually able to smoke was more than a year ago when he double-snapped his ankle and heel trying to chase after a beaver during a hunt. He had three months off after surgery, so he figured he could smoke for two months, get clean in the last.
What’d he do? Drove through a McDonald’s and, when the cashier asked if he needed anything else, he asked for some pot. Fifteen minutes later he followed the the cashier back to his home where the teen’s mom sold Knight an ounce of marijuana.
“I took a deep breath, and I was in heaven,” Knight said.
It’s a hard life to be a cowboy, even harder to be a successful one in modern day.
In Elko, most of the heritage ranches have been sold off to mining tycoons who hire a handful of hands to maintain the property.
“We have 20 acres, and we wanted to work with horses, but it just doesn’t work like that anymore. If you’re not born into (ranching), or you don’t have money, then you gotta find something else,” said Terra White. “It’s one of the reasons we’re in this business.”
Terra and Josh White are high school sweethearts, born and raised in Elko. They have the only legal cannabis-related business in town.
“My ultimate goal is to be sitting next to other ranchers,” Josh said. “I might have fields of hemp instead of hay, but …”
“That’s agriculture,” Terra said, finishing her husband’s sentence.
To them, pot is not only a respectable product, it’s a worthy investment.
Terra smoked her first joint with Josh. A few years later, they were not yet 21 and honeymooning on a nearby mountain marsh with a bag of weed in a boat.
They don’t look like stoners, although, among friends, Josh is known as the Cannabis Cowboy.
He stands tall, a lanky dude with a wide-brim, sweat- and dust-stained straw hat, bright blue Wrangler jeans and a button-up plaid long sleeve. Sometimes he wears shark-skin boots with a green pot leaf stitched on the shank.
“So you sit in the saddle for 16 hours, and the day still has two to three hours, there you go,” Josh said, sucking on a fat roll after a long day. “And I sleep like a baby and I wake up at 4:30 in the a.m. and do it all over again.”
Terra has a black polo with green embroidery on her chest reading Cannabis Consulting.
“I can’t wear this shirt anywhere. If I go to the grocery store, I’ll be there for five hours and my milk’s going to go bad,” Terra said, explaining that everyone is more curious than they like to admit.
The Whites don’t sell any cannabis products; they only offer medical marijuana card services — a business that they started because Josh’s late father couldn’t get cannabis when he was dying of cancer.
“I’ve had police officers, doctors, attorneys, there’s no class that’s above wanting this. There’s no kids with their hats backward coming into the office,” Josh said.
They opened shop a year and a half ago, despite raised eyebrows considering that the city council in 2015 set a moratorium against medical marijuana dispensaries.
“I was told to start a successful business you need to find a hole. Well, we found a hole,” said Josh.
They have about 300 patients. Every month, a doctor drives four hours one-way from Reno to write recommendations.
Because Cannabis Consulting can’t sell the product, some clients go all the way to Reno for their medicine; others simply use their cards as a safety net and grow their own, or buy their neighbors’ illegally. One Reno dispensary delivers to the area.
The “cannabis couple,” however, is working with the local Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone — with the eventual blessing of tribal council elders — to open a dual medical and recreational marijuana dispensary.
The tribe would own the operation since Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval in early June signed into law a bill that allows the state and tribes to create compacts for new marijuana establishments, both medical and recreational. The Whites would help run it.
So far, they have the blessing of tribal chairman David Decker, but it’s been difficult getting the council on board, despite Josh’s prediction that the tribe could make $3.5 million off the business in a year. The young entrepreneurs are hopeful.
“I’ve had ranchers that I grew up with and idolized saying, ‘You’re onto something, kid, stick with it,'” said Josh.
Some locals like the pot scene as is: homegrown.
Even though Marcus Connor found himself in jail less than five minutes into 2017 for smoking pot in public, he says living in a weed-legal world has been awesome.
“I made it about 17 seconds into the New Year without handcuffs,” said Connor, who was so thrilled (and wasted) at midnight on New Year’s — when recreational marijuana became legal in Nevada — that he failed to see the cop standing next to him when he lit up a joint outside a bar in town called Cowboys.
Even so, for Connor, a 23-year-old traveling airport electrician who only stays in town because he has two children in the area, Elko is the best version he has ever known it to be. He still hates it, but it’s better, he said.
The cops have calmed down, the neighbors too, and the general stigma has slipped away.
“I don’t think the cops care anymore. They just wanted to make a statement (during the arrest) – do it in your house privately,” he said.
Which is exactly what everyone is doing. In a trailer park just outside town, Connor’s is one of 13 homes that have closet crops.
Past his home’s entryway, past the psychedelic wall hangings and a coffee table barely visible under a collection of bongs, pipes and a Ziploc filled with bud, a barren white room with a fan and a couple of lights contains a handful of young plants shivering in the artificial breeze.
Since legalizing recreational marijuana, it’s kosher in the Silver State for anyone 21 and over to grow up to six plants, with a 12-plant limit per household.
Anyone living in a metro area is out of luck since the law also prohibits anyone within 25 miles of a dispensary from growing, but Elko’s dispensary moratorium allows pretty much anyone to cultivate a healthy mini-crop.
“If you have a dispensary here, then other people can’t grow. Then you have to go to the dispensary,” said Connor’s roommate, Steve “Steve-O” Eaves, who worked briefly at a marijuana farm in California.
Neither Connor nor Eaves want a dispensary.
While a Reno dispensary currently will deliver product to Elko, it’s priced at about $300 an ounce, whereas Connor and Eaves can get theirs on the black market for between $200 and $250 — evidence that the black market may not be as easy to suffocate as lobbyists and politicians have claimed.
“Some people around here sell it for $60,” Eaves said with contempt, noting that it undermines those putting in the work in the industry.
While the black market is not for the purists who want the best quality kush, the unregulated market seems fitting for Elko, where a libertarian lifestyle resonates.
Connor said, in a crass way, that it’s kinda like masturbation.
“You can do it at home, but you can’t do it here,” Connor said.
Everything in the front room of Konda Wakley’s double-wide trailer has a story.
The cowskin rug on the floor, she and her husband skinned from her own cow. The faded saddle was ridden by her grandfather when he left his Idaho home at 15, on his own, to be a trapper and cowboy.
The white vase on the table traveled cross-country in a pioneer wagon when her triple-great grandmother migrated from the Southeast as one of the first converts to Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints.
Wakley still is a devout Mormon, evident by the Bible verses painted on her walls and the porcelain replicas of Mormon temples from across the country.
“Anything that stimulates our brain, we shouldn’t. Anything that clouds our judgment. ‘Cause a lot of things happen when our judgment is clouded, a lot of regrets can happen,” said Wakley, who admits with slight guilt that she indulges in Pepsi even though she’s not supposed to drink caffeinated beverages.
Although she has never smoked pot in her life, she has another admission: She believes in the healing powers of cannabis oils.
For several years, Wakley has suffered from arthritis, severe depression and fibromyalgia.
“If you watch a science fiction movie where things pop out of people’s bodies, that’s how it feels – it’s all across my neck, down my spine, down my tailbone and across and then down to my knees. It feels like someone is taking a chisel to my spine,” Wakley said.
She doesn’t allow herself to take anything with marijuana’s psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. Instead she uses creams or cannabis oils, which ease her pain but don’t alter her frame of mind.
“My friends are totally supportive of me, even if I use THC. I had a friend offer to grow it for me, and she’s very LDS — very LDS — but I have a lot of friends that believe in natural healing. They believe that God gave us plants to use. There’s no plant out there that’s not given for a reason,” Wakley said.
Her choice to use cannabis oils has not been easy, not only because she’s conservative, Christian and abides by the law, but because she has been met with judgment.
“I actually had a doctor’s assistant tell me, ‘You’ll be glad when you can get off this and be a good, upstanding citizen of the community again,'” said Wakley, who’s fostered 150 children over the years, many of them coming from homes of alcohol or drug abuse.
She teaches all of her children to abstain from drugs and alcohol, though she also believes in forgiveness and understanding, and honesty. Her children know the reason she uses oils, and that she maintains all of her faculties when using them.
Cannabis oils have been the only effective medicine, a treatment that she began a year ago after she suffered a horrific seizure. Enough was enough. She began tapering herself off of opioid medications, bought a medical marijuana card and started using the oils.
“The government says there’s other ways to treat it, but I’ve tried it. I’ve been to Utah, been all over – the things the government’s approved don’t work for me,” she said.
She drives nearly 10 hours round-trip every month to get the creams and oils from a dispensary in Reno. Her friend accompanies her and keeps her awake on the drive.
Although she still has acute pain and “days where suicide looks good,” she’s better off than a year ago.
“So far, we’re surviving,” Wakley said.