LAS VEGAS -- I hadn’t consumed a single pot gummy, scout’s honor. But as I scanned my surroundings, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I was already high.
Fog began seeping through the walls of Planet 13, the largest cannabis dispensary in the United States, and, most likely, the world. A string of giant, color-changing orbs danced above me like a flock of bloated, psychedelic birds. All the while David Bowie sang “I’m floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different tod-a-a-a-a-y.” It was wonderfully bizarre.
Let me reiterate. I was not under the influence of any substance at the time of this incident.
Planet 13 bills itself as a “cannabis superstore and entertainment complex.” As you approach you see 12 giant LED lotus flowers sprouting from the roof. But people aren’t coming here for orbs, interactive floors, or the massive water feature in front of the building. It’s all about the product, and the 16,200-square-foot sales floor is filled with just about any bud, oil, soap, edible, cartridge, joint, or beverage you could possibly get your mitts on. Even better, there were none of the long wait times or lines that have plagued Massachusetts pot dispensaries.
Yes, my friends, this bud’s for you.
“I’d say about 80 or 90 percent of the people who come in are tourists or first-timers,” said Planet 13 budtender (!) Zach Brengman. “A lot of people come in and have no idea what they’re looking for. But that’s what we’re here for. We give them a little direction. We have 500 different products, so it’s pretty overwhelming.”
It stands to reason that Las Vegas would play host to the world’s largest dispensary. This is a city that’s all about excess and indulging vices. It’s a perfect storm for pot tourism. Planet 13 hopes to play a big role in that market. The entire complex is currently 40,000 square feet, but there are plans to eventually expand the superstore to over 100,000 square feet with the addition of a coffee shop and restaurants.
But it gets even larger than that. Many Las Vegas dispensaries are located in the same area, and some have started referring to the district as “the green circle.” As of last May, Las Vegas had more than 30 dispensaries. More have since arrived. This is a city that’s uniquely poised not just to thrive, but to own the recreational marijuana market in the United States.
“I eventually think that this whole area could be the Amsterdam of Las Vegas,” said Brandon Zimmer, marketing coordinator for the Planet 13. “People can walk around to all the different shops, or they can just stay here.”
Las Vegas already has a spurious Paris, New York, and Venice. Why not Amsterdam?
Currently there’s one small detail getting in the way of the Vegas-Amsterdam dream, and that’s a place to consume the goods. The 42 million tourists who come to Vegas annually can legally purchase pot, but lighting up is another issue. It’s illegal to smoke or ingest marijuana in hotels and public places in Nevada, including casinos, bars, restaurants, and on the street.
There are many tourists who ignore those rules. Walking down the Strip can often smell like a stroll through Alice B. Toklas’s kitchen. However the majority of visitors appear to be law-abiding tokers.
Further complicating matters are ambiguous rules about flying home with pot — even to states that have already legalized it.
Marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law and post-security areas at airports are ruled by federal agencies. So bringing legally purchased pot past a security checkpoint can still trigger a law enforcement response.
The TSA offered a slightly ambiguous explanation of this on its Instagram page in April.
“TSA officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs,” the posting said. “Our screening procedures are focused on security and detecting potential threats. But in the event a substance appears to be marijuana or a cannabis infused product, we’re required by federal law to notify law enforcement. This includes items that are used for medicinal purposes.”
So until the purple haze clears, it’s technically illegal to travel with it. Although to be blunt (bad pun intended), many do so anyway.
The conundrum of where to enjoy pot in Vegas was almost solved this spring when city government passed an ordinance that would have allowed dispensaries to open “consumption lounges.” State government stepped in and put the idea on hold until at least 2021.
Still, loopholes and laws are not getting in the way of Vegas’s budding pot playground. Those who can’t wait to get their clam baked can hire a car to pick them up at the airport and immediately bring them to a dispensary. There are several cannabis tour options that will take you to visit growers and dispensaries. You can even hire a chef to throw a cannabis-infused dinner party that does not involve the usual stoner feast of Pringles and Little Debbie.
Not all Las Vegas pot offerings are over-the-top extravaganzas. A high — sorry, I mean large — number of dispensaries means a wide variety of shops. In 2018, recreational marijuana sales totaled $424.9 million in Nevada.
“I think Las Vegas is often viewed from that lens of glitz and glamour,” said Matt Janz, marketing director of The Source. “There’s an alternative to that neon-lit madness. We provide that for tourists. We’re creating an atmosphere that’s very warm and engaging. A lot of what we do is around wellness.”
You can travel from “warm and engaging” to “an immersive dispensary experience” at Acres Cannabis. Here, I stood and looked into the kitchen where the staff makes 12 types of gourmet gummies.
For those who enjoy a farm-to-bong experience, Acres hosts a weekly farmers’ market where 10 or so growers and cultivators sell their goods.
“Acres is bridging the educational gap between the customer and the mysteries and taboos surrounding cannabis,” said Luke Chasse, who handles marketing for Acres. “We give cultivators the opportunity to connect to the consumers face-to-face.”
Sadly, when you’re done consuming cannabis-infused chocolate and gummies, plus roasting and toasting your way through town, there are repositories at the airport where you’re instructed to throw away your stash before you board your flight. Such a buzz kill.
But you’ll always have herbal memories of the trip — that is if you can remember the experience by the time you get home.