Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Nevada approved recreational marijuana use in 2016, but three years later there's still no place for visitors to the state to toke up. Although those visitors can purchase weed at licensed dispensaries, state law still prohibits the consumption in public places and vehicles, so unless they are on private property with permission from the owner, visitors have no legal place to consume.

Some Nevada lawmakers are pursuing legislation that will allow the creation of marijuana lounges, following models used in places like San Francisco. The state law makes no provisions for the creation of such venues, but the Las Vegas City Council, which oversees the downtown and Fremont East areas but not the Strip, took a first step by approving an ordinance on May 1 that would allow for the creation of marijuana social lounges. It appears those plans could remain in limbo, however, as the state, under newly elected Gov. Steve Sisolak, has decided to set up its own framework for opening the lounges.

The new governor created an advisory panel for marijuana regulations that is in the process of determining rules to regulate the marijuana industry, including the formation of a Cannabis Control Board. One of the board's responsibilities would be outlining when and where consumption lounges should be allowed, if at all. The advisory panel has sent a bill to the state legislature that if approved, would establish the control board and supersede the existing Las Vegas ordinance.

"If the cannabis commission bill passes it will put Las Vegas back to square one," said Clark County commissioner Tick Segerblom, a strong supporter of legal weed during his days as a state legislator from 2007 to 2018. The Clark County Commission, which has authority over the Strip, has been considering a marijuana lounge ordinance of its own but for now is simply watching Las Vegas and state decisions closely.

Segerblom said if the state advisory board proposal is approved by the state legislature it would be at least a year until any pot lounges could open, and local policy makers are in wait-and-see mode. It is possible, he added, that the state legislature might carve out an exception for existing ordinances, like the one in Las Vegas, before passing the cannabis control board legislation.

As one of Nevada's biggest legal marijuana proponents, one who has been involved with marijuana policy making nearly every step of the way, Segerblom wants to see Las Vegas tap into additional tourism, business and tax revenue that could come from permitting lounges.

The City of Las Vegas lounges, if not blocked by the state, would be open to consumers 21 and over who must bring their own marijuana. The Nevada Gaming Commission has advised all casinos to steer clear of the cannabis business as it is still illegal under federal law, and any association with the marijuana industry could risk their gaming licenses. The Nevada Resort Association lobbied on behalf of the major casinos against the City of Las Vegas lounge ordinance. Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, said casino properties are concerned about the mere proximity of a marijuana lounge or dispensary.

"We would rather see a well-crafted ordinance than a rushed one," Valentine told the council, arguing that the city should wait for the formation of the Cannabis Control Board.

Segerblom is focused on the potential gains that would come with the opening a new sector of tourism.

"I want us to be the No. 1 place in the world for cannabis tourism," he said. "It's so perfect for what we do and what our image is. It's not going to be that many people, maybe 10% will partake, but when you get 45 million visitors a year that's still a lot of people. If we're going to advertise around the world 'What happens here, stays here,' than marijuana fits into that."

Washington and Oregon have been confronted with similar conundrums: Their laws allow for visitors to purchase cannabis but provide few safe and legal places to consume, and both states are working on their own legislation for permitting lounges.

"The longer we wait, the more it hurts us," Segerblom said. "Once we open the first lounge and people see on TV that you can come and use safely here, it will go viral. We can be the new Amsterdam, as long as we don't wait too long.  Every day that goes by we lose another opportunity."

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