At UNLV, a first-of-its-kind Cannabis Policy Institute is up and running

At UNLV, a first-of-its-kind Cannabis Policy Institute is up and running

The medicinal and recreational use of legal cannabis is still relatively new in Nevada, where lawful sales debuted in 2017, and the regulation of consumption lounges is being worked through.

That’s part of the reason why UNLV created its Cannabis Policy Institute, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Nevada and possibly in the United States, director Riana Durrett said.

The institute will serve as a research hub for cannabis policy and “local, state, national and international implications for public policy, law, medicine, science, economics and businesses,” UNLV said in a recent release. It is a collaboration between multiple programs at the university.

“There are so many unanswered questions related to cannabis legalization here in Nevada and nationwide, and we believe UNLV — with its vast network of faculty experts and partners — is well-positioned to become a national leader in public policy research and development,” UNLV President Keith Whitfield in a statement. 

Southern Nevada presents an interesting market, with almost $1 billion in sales in 2022 alone, according to the state’s Cannabis Compliance Board. It’s a market-driven industry, not just by locals, but also tourists, which brings “unique policy questions” and market impacts, UNLV Provost Chris Heavey said.

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom first approached the university about creating the Cannabis Policy Institute, Durrett said.

John Hudak, a senior fellow at Brookings Mountain West who has experience in cannabis research, along with Heavey and Kate Corgan — senior vice provost for academic affairs — shaped the proposal. It was approved in September by the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents.

“It starts with the notion that we believe that there’s a need in the community for thoughtful policy related to cannabis,” Heavey said. “And we recognize that there were many resources on campus that could be brought together to help inform the development of policy and research on cannabis.”

Durrett became an “outstanding choice” to lead the institute considering her experience teaching cannabis law and regulation under UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, Heavey said.

She is also the first vice chair of the Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board and served as the executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association from 2015 to 2020.

Durrett is joined by an advisory board of various local leaders and experts, including Segerblom, Heavey, various deans from UNLV colleges and cannabis cultivation business owner Judah Zakalik.

The “extremely well-qualified faculty and institutional capabilities” make UNLV the perfect place to begin filling what many maintain is “a lack of research and credible policy information on cannabis,” Durrett said.

While more people are conducting studies on and exploring cannabis policy, Durrett believes there’s still a lot of misconceptions regarding its usage.

She hopes that getting everyone “working off the same page of information” will help lawmakers better understand the drug and industry when they go to make cannabis-related decisions.

“(Cannabis policy) is new, and there’s so many questions and it’s so rapidly changing,” Durrett said. “The danger is not working off the same page of information and having policies develop around us with no input.”

And the Cannabis Policy Institute already has its eyes set on two areas of concern: cannabis and gaming, as well as dispelling myths surrounding the legal market.

Although students won’t be involved with the cannabis business or cultivation research, Durrett said there would still be internship opportunities, guidance during student research and engagement events.

A series of panel discussions, which Durrett is planning, are soon to come from the Cannabis Policy Institute. The first topics will cover areas like the state of cannabis research, a “state of the state on the (cannabis) market as well as cannabis and gaming.”

Durrett is also working on the institute hosting a policy summit, where cannabis leaders from across the United States will be able to come and discuss cannabis policy among fellow experts. It’s something “that’s really lacking in the country,” she said.

“Now that (cannabis) has been legalized, everyone understands it is not going away, and the important thing is to be able to be responsible and how we manage it,” Heavey said. “If we want to be in a position to provide useful guidance to all of the people involved in this sooner, the better.”

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Region: Nevada

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