Cannabis Catch-22

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Visitors to Nevada can buy cannabis but it's not legal for them to use it. Photo courtesy Cannabis News Worldwide

You can buy it.  But you can’t smoke it.

Such is the status of the recreational weed industry in Nevada for more than 47 million visitors who can legally buy cannabis but can’t legally consume it, thanks to a state law that prohibits use in public places.   

In other words, the state, while happy to reap the greater than anticipated tax benefits of the fledgling industry, has yet to provide a legal mechanism for the visitors who purchase weed and other cannabis products here to legally partake.  

What’s a law-abiding pot smoker to do?

“It’s just a question that no one has an answer to,” says Brent Resh, who refers to the conundrum as the “elephant in the hotel room.”  Resh presented recommendations Thursday to Clark County’s Green Ribbon Panel on what many see as a pressing need to take action.  

The City of Las Vegas was on track to address the disparity in the law and entertain the possibility of permitting cannabis lounges, but a plea from the Nevada Resort Association in September to hold off put the plan on ice.  The NRA declined to comment for this story.

State law allows the use of marijuana only in private homes, not in public places, including the resort hotels that provide lodging for most visitors.

“Las Vegas is a family destination.  How many times are those families going to return if they can’t walk down the Strip without smelling marijuana?” Resh asked.

Consuming cannabis is also prohibited in motor vehicles.

“The decision not to act is a decision,” says Resh, a Boyd Law graduate who told the Green Ribbon Panel of the potentially dire consequences of inaction.   “If we’re inviting tourists to come here to buy marijuana and look the other way when they use it illegally, which may be the only way they can use, is that going to create this general sense that we don’t have respect for Nevada law?  And if we don’t have to respect it with respect to the public place prohibition, then, do we have to respect it with respect to the motor vehicle prohibition?”

A stoned driver who resorts to smoking in his car.  A collision with a pedestrian on the Strip. How would the state look then for not taking action, Resh wondered.  

While consuming cannabis in public is punishable by a $600 fine, Resh acknowledges enforcing the measure would be a public relations nightmare for the tourism industry.   

Thankfully, Nevada is not alone.  When the time comes for Nevada lawmakers to act – likely not until the 2021 legislative session, thanks to a provision that prevents tinkering with voter-approved measures for three years – they won’t have to reinvent the wheel.  

Here’s a mix of options Nevada lawmakers will be watching around the nation.

Massachusetts: It may be a few years down the road, but some Massachusetts municipalities are taking part in a pilot program to allow lounges where cannabis and eleven percent alcoholic beverages could be consumed together. It’s the only measure under consideration that permits the simultaneous consumption of alcohol and cannabis.

Denver: Stringent requirements have made compliance with the city’s social use establishment designation cost-prohibitive.  Smoking is not allowed because of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. The businesses can allow vaping and consumption of edibles but can’t sell alcohol or cannabis.  Given the challenge of the business model, only two establishments have been licensed. One is open.

A bill that would have allowed tasting rooms in dispensaries passed the Colorado Legislature but was vetoed by Governor John Hickenlooper.

Portland: Hotels are allowed to designate 20 percent of hotel rooms to smokers of cigarettes or weed. But the allowance hasn’t prevented public consumption.

Alaska: Consumption is allowed on-premise in a designated area.  (Think McCarran International Airport’s glassed-in smoking area.)

West Hollywood: A marijuana establishment can establish an “ancillary cannabis consumption area” that “shall not exceed 50 percent of a floor area.”  The drawback is not all dispensaries have the extra space for a designated area.

Resh says an establishment that provides “single servings” of cannabis, in a variety of forms, makes sense for Nevada’s “seed to sale” regulatory scheme, rather than a system like Denver’s which allows patrons to bring their own product into the establishment.  

Not only would single servings allow “lounge” personnel to monitor consumption, it would prevent visitors from taking unused cannabis back to their hotel rooms. The Green Ribbon Panel. which consists of industry representatives and community leaders, will be meeting regularly next year to evaluate the options and eventually make recommendations to the County Commission.  

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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