Phoenix company working on 'Marijuana Mecca' in California desert

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A Phoenix-based company is investing millions on an experiment in the California desert that revolves around cannabis. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) A Phoenix-based company is investing millions on an experiment in the California desert that revolves around cannabis. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Stephen Shearin is the project manager for American Green, a Phoenix-based cannabis company that bought the entire 80-acre town last year for $5 million. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Stephen Shearin is the project manager for American Green, a Phoenix-based cannabis company that bought the entire 80-acre town last year for $5 million. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, CA (3TV/CBS 5) -

A Phoenix-based company is trying to take hospitality to a higher level. They’re investing millions on an experiment in the California desert. It all revolves around one thing: cannabis.

When you travel to the edge of the Mohave Desert, about an hour’s drive west of Bullhead City, you reach a tiny, windswept town: Nipton, California.

Population? Depends whom you ask. But everyone agrees less than 40.

“It's like Neverland, you know? You're in your own time zone,” said Cody Benson, who has lived in Nipton since he was 5.

“I've known it to have about three different owners and it hasn't changed much through that time,” Benson said.

Nipton hasn’t changed much in more than a century. The trains from Los Angeles to Salt Lake still pass through like they have since 1905, beneath the backdrop of the mineral-rich mountains that drew people here in the first place.

“They hauled a lot of gold out of here,” said motorcyclist Don Pyorala. “And a lot of silver.”

Yes, Nipton has its roots in the Gold Rush. But the people who now run this place see a chance for major growth in the “Green Rush.”

“This is a cannabis cornucopia, marijuana mecca — whatever somebody wants to call it. Because we're showing something which could be adopted globally. In little old Nipton,” said Stephen Shearin.

Shearin is the project manager for American Green, a Phoenix-based cannabis company that bought the entire 80-acre town last year for $5 million.

Right now, it’s largely a campsite and RV park with a handful of buildings. There are the Whistlestop Cafe, the Trading Post general store, and the five-room Nipton Hotel.

“The vision is that this town evolves into the 80 acres,” he said.

Shearin imagines the nation’s first cannabis-friendly hospitality destination, with a wellness center featuring marijuana treatments, cannabis-infused bottled water and plenty of lodging for cannabis-related concerts and events.

“Is this ‘Pot Town?’” No,” said Shearin, who thinks the word “pot” implies illegal marijuana. “This a town that has a mature approach to the inclusion of cannabis in its economy.”

California’s economy started allowing recreational marijuana Jan. 1 and American Green wants to capitalize. But there are some legal challenges: San Bernardino County does not allow recreational marijuana sales or cultivation in unincorporated areas, like Nipton.

“How can you be the marijuana Mecca without selling marijuana?” asked reporter Derek Staahl.

“San Francisco never mined an ounce of gold yet their football team's called the 49ers after the Gold Rush,” responded Shearin.

He says people who visit Nipton will just have to bring their own cannabis.

The county isn’t the only concern. There is only one road in or out of Nipton and it cuts cuts right through federal land. The feds still consider marijuana a Schedule 1 drug and that could make this tiny town a target.

“I would love a crackdown here!” Shearin said sarcastically. “Crack down. Arrest me. Chain me to the post. Take me to federal prison. Because what, I manage a property where people are following their state's law?”

Nipton will comply with all state and local laws, he said, including strict rules about where people can and cannot light up.

Nipton hospitality manager Freddie Wyatt says the privately owned nature of the town will give Nipton an edge over other “cannabis tourism” spots like Las Vegas, where there are significant restrictions on where marijuana can be used.

“Where you going [in Las Vegas]? Can't go to your hotel. It's illegal. All the casinos are saying it's illegal. Not allowed to smoke in your room; you get fined. So what are you going to do, walk outside and smoke a joint?” he said.

Wyatt thinks Nipton can attract the cannabis community to make the long drive through the desert by going green with solar energy, and even using hemp products for construction.

“We have all the ingredients to make ourselves self-sufficient. So I think once we get there, then we can just build from within. Make it a cool place to get 400 guests a weekend -- that's great. We don't need 3,000 people out here to be successful. We just need the right people to be successful,” he said.

So far, the people who have lived in Nipton for a while like the idea.

“They've definitely done so much with the town already. Cleaned it all up. I don't see them going away. I think they want to make a name for themselves here,” said Benson.

Benson says after more than a century, this tiny town could use some big change.

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Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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