Pot is legal in Vegas — but tourists have nowhere to smoke
LAS VEGAS — In this desert oasis, visitors meander down the Strip, gulping booze from novelty jugs. Hucksters press escort ads into the hands of passersby. You can bet on the Raiders or roulette.
But when it comes to marijuana, it turns out Sin City is something of a scold.
Retail pot sales have been legal since July 1, but there’s just about nowhere for tourists to consume it without breaking the rules.
Casinos and their hotels forbid any form of cannabis consumption. It’s illegal to toke up or eat a pot brownie on the street or in a park. It’s forbidden, too, if you’re a passenger in a moving car, or partying at a raucous bar, or hiking in nearby Red Rock Canyon. Where can you smoke? Almost nowhere, except private homes. And, so far, cannabis cafes exist just in theory.
Determining where tourists can go to consume marijuana is a vexing question in all eight states where voters have legalized the drug, including Massachusetts. But in the “What Happens Here, Stays Here” city, which saw a whopping 43 million visitors in 2016, advocates say the debate carries a whiff of hypocrisy.
“This is what we spend millions of dollars on: Come here because you can’t do it back home,” said pro-marijuana state Senator Tick Segerblom. “Then you say: Oh by the way, you can’t do it here.”
That dichotomy has put discussion of places where adults could legally consume marijuana — call them pot cafes or consumption lounges — front and center for people in the new legal Nevada industry.
For now, such venues exist in a legal gray zone under Nevada law. It may be legal for local officials to license pot cafes as standalone establishments. It’s definitely illegal to have one on the premises of a marijuana retail store.
The conundrum of consumption is not limited to Nevada. Even in states like Colorado, where it’s been 3½ years since retail marijuana stores opened, the legal infrastructure for public consumption lounges remains a work in progress. In Massachusetts the law allows them, though there is a high bar for licensure.
But the legal haze hasn’t stopped Nevadans like Joe Brezny, a marijuana consultant, from preaching the gospel of cannabis consumption lounges. He thinks Las Vegas will be the first American city to see the pot spots proliferate.
Padding through a 6,000-square-foot room on the second floor of a marijuana farm, processing facility, bake house, manufacturing plant, and retail shop all rolled into one, Brezny sees a cannabis lounge as the missing piece.
“We have everything between these four walls except consumption,” he said at Shango Las Vegas, about 15 minutes east of the Strip.
Where there is now just dingy carpeting and windows with views of brown mountains, he envisions high-definition video-gaming, a borrow-a-bong station, a high-end lounge with comfy couches, a top-notch air filtration system, and a VIP area for bachelor parties and maybe even “the coolest bar mitzvah on the planet.” (Just the young man’s parents and their friends — marijuana is 21-plus, after all.)
On-site consumption venues, where people can buy and smoke in the same place, would require a change of state law that is probably years away. But a lounge like Brezny envisions as a standalone facility could spring up much sooner.
Still, not everyone thinks pot lounges are a good idea.
“I think they’ll inspire more scrutiny from the federal government,” which continues to classify the drug as illegal, said Jim Hartman, a lawyer who worked against the Nevada legalization ballot measure last year.
Hartman has doubts regulators can ensure the safety of cannabis lounges.
“We think: we’ve done alcohol, we’ve done gambling, so marijuana will be a snap,” he said. “There’s a certain level of arrogance here.”
Advocates readily admit there are hard questions that need to be answered. What happens when patrons get too high? How do you prevent them from driving high?
Scot Rutledge, one of Nevada’s top marijuana lobbyists, framed the concept of pot lounges as a way to rethink a model that has existed since the dawn of the automobile age.
People drive to a lot of bars, drink, and then drive home. Perhaps, he suggested, cannabis lounges should have just limited parking and offer shuttle buses and easy access by limos and ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft.
“We have a chance to do this right on the front end and say: you know what, we don’t want to encourage people to drive,” he said.
Rutledge, sipping a green smoothie (avocado) at a cafe (coffee) in Las Vegas’s Arts District, said states like Massachusetts — where retail shops are set to open next summer — should start thinking now about where people will consume.
“Look, Boston is going to have to address this, too,” Rutledge said. “You have a ton of tourists that come through there. They are going to buy marijuana, and they are going to go back to their hotels. And if we don’t want them in our parks, and on our sidewalks, and in our city streets smoking marijuana, we have to give them a place to go.”
Massachusetts state law allows for cannabis cafes, where marijuana can be sold and consumed on site — but it’s not automatic. Cities and town officials may be able to approve them, some lawyers say. And local voters can collect the signatures of at least 10 percent of the municipality’s residents who voted in the last statewide election, and force a ballot question on the issue.
In Boston, for example, activists would need to collect the signatures of 27,737 voters and then persuade a majority of Bostonians to approve a cannabis cafe measure. Even then, regulators could still reject applications for such shops.
Adults in Nevada can consume the drug on private property, as long as the property’s owner has permitted it. But public consumption broadly defined — on the street, in a bar, at a concert, in a pot shop — is banned.
And because pot remains illegal under federal law, gambling regulators frown at use in a casino or on its property.
For Las Vegas visitors who want to use pot, that presents a dilemma.
Coming out of a marijuana store near the Strip last week, Emmett Reistroffer and Catarina Riggi, Denver residents, were faced with the conundrum.
“Where are we going to go? I really don’t know right now,” Reistroffer said, holding a bag of just-purchased goods from Las Vegas ReLeaf. “But we are going to go find somewhere. Because we are determined to smoke this.”
The desire to get high and not get caught might be one reason marijuana-infused food was a particularly big seller among tourists in July, according to several local pot shop owners. After all, it is easier to slip a pot-infused mint into your mouth walking the casino floor than it is to light up a marijuana pipe.
Segerblom, the pro-pot state senator, wrote a bill that would have cleared the way for local officials to license some pot cafes, but it died in the state assembly this spring.
Still, in an interview, Segerblom was optimistic about a full-blown marijuana industry springing up. The senator envisions a Little Amsterdam area of Las Vegas where adults can buy weed and then consume it on site at one of several nearby cafes. He mentions marijuana hotels, marijuana party buses, marijuana limos, marijuana weddings.
“You can’t believe the crazy ideas people have for marijuana consumption tied to other things,” said the senator.
It’s Las Vegas, after all.
“Exactly,” Segerblom said, seeming to channel a conversation he’s had several times.
“ ‘Oh, it’s going to ruin our reputation,’ ” his sparring partner might say.
“ ‘Ruin our reputation? This is our reputation!’ ”