Compassion and Divine Intervention at Sahara Wellness Dispensary

Melinda Cohen

Sahara Wellness waiting room

It is often noted that the public face of cannabis is evolving as the industry develops. Most notably, the increasing number of women entering the business has introduced a new perspective, as well as playing a role in lifting some of the stigmas around medical marijuana.

At Sahara Wellness, a female-owned dispensary on East Sahara Avenue, the lobby is a continuous cycle of patients dealing with cancer, end-of-life issues, anxieties and sleep disorders. Once cleared for entry through the locked door, they relax in the spa-like lobby where a serenity fountain pours on one wall and an LED menu for medical marijuana glows on another. Smooth jazz plays through the speakers in the warmly lit room.

“It’s a big responsibility. And it’s very emotional. Patients are very, very ill. … This gives an alternative to help with the pain, but live a functional life.” – Brenda Gunsallus

Inevitably, patients and staff greet like good friends, which makes sense given that they’re navigating this new industry together and dealing with relief for serious medical conditions. The owners give a sense this is more a calling than a business and say that the dispensary ever opening, given the licensing process and tight regulations, was something of a miracle.

“It’s the hardest job anyone of us encountered, but so rewarding,” says Brenda Gunsallus, a former missionary (of the Jerry Falwell sect) who was a professional tennis player and tennis club owner before partnering with three other women, (one of them a former law enforcement officer) to open the dispensary at 420 E. Sahara Ave. “It’s a big responsibility. And it’s very emotional. Patients are very, very ill. There are elderly people who are diagnosed with stage four cancer and have no hope and want different options. This gives an alternative to help with the pain, but live a functional life.”

She adds, “We’re just four women who wanted to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Now open a year, Sahara Wellness has been a four-year venture for the partners who don’t consume marijuana and didn’t know what “420” meant when they got their address. After going through the rigorous application process for a new industry, being told repeatedly to save their money because they wouldn’t get licensed and traveling to dispensaries in different states, they ended up being the first female-owned dispensary in Las Vegas. Gunsallus says that she believes some of the older customers might select them because they are women, but that dispensaries across the board in Nevada are serious about what they do and treat patients with compassion.

Krystal Ramirez | Vegas Seven

“The first couple of patients we had were in their 80s,” she says. “She was ready to go into transition. They wanted to be together, without the use of morphine. It’s stuff like that you see over and over. There are patients with stomach cancers, brain tumors.  A lot of anxiety. People can’t sleep and sleep is how you heal. People who are very ill come in stressed. This helps them relax.”

The night before the dispensary licensing applications were due, one of the partners backed out and they had redraft the application. By then they’d already spent $250,000 for location and legal fees, and made it to the courthouse at two minutes to three, just under deadline.

“It was sort of like something between The Amazing Race and Punk’d,” co-owner Alex Davis says, laughing. The dispensary, a $2 million project, is now fully operational and its owners are establishing a cultivation center in Apex. She says opening Sahara Wellness must have involved “divine intervention.”

“Without it we wouldn’t be here,” Davis says.