This story has been edited for brevity and clarity and translated from Spanish.
Once hidden underground, it isn’t hard to find marijuana businesses in Nevada these days — they’re the sophisticated buildings in busy strip malls with bold green letters proclaiming “cannabis.”
Marijuana has risen from ignominy to prominence in the state since lawmakers authorized recreational sales in July 2017. And the plant has also taken a prominent role in the life of Priscilla Vilchis, founder of Premium Produce, a company that grows marijuana not too far from the Las Vegas Strip.
A Latina businesswoman, Vilchis operates her company with the same meticulous care she gives to her cannabis: daily monitoring, the touch of expert hands, optimum conditions to ensure the best possible harvest, and strict quality control so that the plant will produce the best results.
But along the way she has also found herself in arid lands. Her challenges range from complying with stringent regulations, to the lack of legislation to allow million-dollar transactions through normal banking institutions to breaking taboos that for generations have labeled marijuana as a gateway to harder drugs.
"It’s been very difficult, because we’re the first ones and they’re using us as an example," Vilchis said. "Everything is very technical, and if you’re not in compliance, they give you a fine."
When she first obtained a medical marijuana license in 2014, she became the first female president of a cannabis company in Nevada. Diversity has been a concern in the industry; the percentage of women executives in marijuana nationwide is slightly higher than women executives in U.S. businesses overall, but women are far underrepresented as investors in the industry, according to a 2017 reader survey from the trade publication Marijuana Business Daily.
The survey also found that less than 20 percent of cannabis business founders and owners are non-white, while nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population is non-white.
The Legislature is looking for ways to bring more people like Vilchis into the industry. In addition to application scoring that credits businesses with diverse leadership teams, a bill working its way through the Legislature seeks a study into the demographics of Nevada’s marijuana industry and whether discrimination or disparities in licensing exist.
Becoming an industry
As the saying goes, "if you don’t show it, you won’t sell it.”
That’s why in late March, Priscilla Vilchis and her team organized everything they needed to participate in an event for cannabis exhibitors at Planet 13 dispensary in Las Vegas.
She had a small table at the entrance, a mini Ferris wheel, small golden bags that looked like gold bars, hats and other objects emblazoned with the word "Reina" (Spanish for “queen”). Vilchis has been described as a queen who has paved the way in the competitive cannabis industry. And she has managed to take advantage of that title to market her products.
The start of Premium Produce dates back to 2013, when Vilchis was 27 and working in marketing and management at a doctor’s office in California. As she was forging a successful career, she came up with the idea of starting a cannabis business.
Realizing that patients were visiting doctors to relieve their pain and ended up addicted to prescription opioids was a turning point in her life.
"That drew my attention — the side effects of pain medication. That is what prompted me to invest into marijuana. I got into the industry for the medical aspect," she said. “I saw the bigger picture that moment. I knew it, I felt it, that there has to be an alternative, and that is marijuana.”
Although her lawyer advised her not to risk her money in the industry because it wasn’t a legal business at a federal level, he recommended she opened a business in Nevada, where there are more profitable opportunities than in California.
Vilchis obtained her medical marijuana license in Nevada in 2014, becoming the first and the youngest female president from a minority group. In 2017, she was licensed to sell cannabis for recreational use.
Her biggest challenge in starting the business was banking.
When she applied for the licenses, one of the criteria was to have a physical space for her company. Her lawyer advised her that she needed to buy a property, otherwise she wouldn’t meet state requirements for licensing because the banks wouldn’t finance her business.
“That was a big challenge. That’s $2 million day in one day,” she said. “I didn’t plan for that, but I had to deliver and do it if I wanted to win these licenses. So I did it.”
The lack of access to banking continues to be a problem. Many marijuana companies line up heavy security to handle the mountains of cash that flow through their businesses.
Vilchis, who doesn’t operate her business with a credit union, said that if the banks would get involved, the state could keep better track of revenue and implement a more accurate taxation mechanism, helping drive away the black market.
“[Regulations] have to be updated,” she said. “This is here to stay. This is the new tobacco, the new alcohol, and as soon as the regulators get on the same page as us it’s going to be a lot easier for us.”
A clear vision
Making her plants and her business grow wouldn’t have been the same if Vilchis didn’t have another essential ingredient: Strong roots, which her family members offer as they help her manage her business on a daily basis.
Vilchis has two sisters, ages 17 and 23, and a 7-year-old brother who dreams of becoming an engineer for Tesla.
Her leadership skills attracted attention since she was a teen. Vilchis enjoyed spending time not only with people who had businesses, but in the medical sector, where her mother worked for years.
"She was always brave and she had a big vision for everything she did," her parents, Irma and Alfredo Vilchis, said in a recent interview at Premium Produce. "She wasn’t a follower. Everyone seemed to follow her."
It was her experience working closely with physicians that prompted Priscilla Vilchis’ interest in researching the effects of opioids, seeking alternatives for patients, and one day gathering her family to share the news: She wanted to work in the medical marijuana industry.
At first Vilchis’ family worried that she wouldn’t be protected by law, but her responsible character and the therapeutic possibilities of marijuana convinced them, her parents said.
"I remember that day very well. They were saying on TV something about opioids and she said to me, 'Dad, I see doctors who give prescriptions to people, and when they return, they’re either aggressive or addicted. I bet there’s an alternative to soothe their pain,’" her father said.
The vision Vilchis had from the start has now become a family business that her parents consider a great achievement and a model for other Latino entrepreneurs.
"The love I have for my children and my wife is like winning the lottery," Alfredo Vilchis said. "I feel proud when I see she succeeded, coming from a Latino minority, and that she’s so responsible.”
For Vilchis, opening the doors of her new company not only meant dealing with the regulations of the cannabis industry. She also had to reckon with her family’s feelings toward marijuana.
Although her parents grew up in the United States and she and her siblings were born in this country, the entrenched religious beliefs and strict moral principles that her grandparents brought over from Mexico didn’t align with her vision of becoming a marijuana entrepreneur.
Films depicting the drug trade and corridos (ballads) about drug traffickers that were fashionable during her childhood didn’t help much. At home she and her brothers weren’t allowed to hear music that dealt with drugs, profanity, or seeing people smoking or kissing on the big screen.
If Vilchis’ parents took a while and needed a lot of information to understand the business her daughter envisioned, it was much harder for her grandmother to understand it.
She grew up with the idea that marijuana smokers weren’t reliable, that it was synonymous with addiction, and she also worried what would the rest of her family would think when they found out about Vilchis’ business decision.
"When the word 'marijuana' was heard in my family, my mom would tell us: 'I come from Mexico, and when we see a pot user, we run,’" her dad remembered. “'How is Priscilla going to get involved in this business? What do you think they're going to call me, granny pot?’"
Vilchis also recalled her first steps in the cannabis business from her perspective as a young Latino entrepreneur. She was aware of how hard it would be to obtain licenses to operate her emporium. She said her strategy for success was to build a solid team with lawyers and lobbyists.
“I know that I have to work harder because of this, but I did it and I won,” she said. “So, if everyone out there, minority, white… black, it doesn’t matter. It can be difficult for anyone. We have the resources and we have the tools in front of us. Utilize them.”
A vision for the future
With the potential for great expansion to Nevada’s large tourist base, marijuana investors have flocked to licenses like bees to honey. Marijuana sales in the first year of full legalization totaled $529.9 million dollars, according to the Nevada Department of Taxation.
But the competition doesn’t bother Vilchis, she said, because those companies must comply with the same process and regulations businesses like hers had to deal with.
Vilchis wants her company to continue to flourish along with her cannabis plants, so she said she hopes the federal government and the marijuana industry, sooner or later, will be on the same page and allow entrepreneurs to use banks safely like any other industry.
Since the medicinal aspect of marijuana was her main motivation for entering the marijuana business, Vilchis said she wishes one day marijuana costs will be reimbursed by health insurance companies as treatment for job-related injuries and other ailments.
"That's the biggest goal," she said.