In a tourism-driven state like Nevada, what is the benefit of legalizing marijuana if there is no place that tourists can legally smoke it?
That question certainly must have come across the minds of those behind the legalization initiative approved by voters in November. Yet, as state Sen. Don Gustavson pointed out in a recent legislative hearing, the ballot question was worded in a way that made voters believe marijuana could only be consumed in their homes.
We aren’t surprised that Sen. Tick Segerblom introduced a bill to turn that perception on its head, even before regulations for recreational pot sales were put together by the state tax department. It’s no secret that he was working on the bill even before the election.
“We’re trying to get $70 million in tax revenue from them, so let’s give them some place to use it,” Segerblom eagerly told lawmakers.
We questioned whether such establishments would be allowed under the law when we wrote our “Countdown to Marijuana” series prior to the election. While no state allows public consumption of pot, states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington have marijuana-friendly hotels that allow smoking in rented rooms.
Hotels connected with casinos, however, face more scrutiny because of gambling regulations and alcohol sales. A Las Vegas Sands executive told lawmakers that not having pot lounges would cause tourists to take the drug into casino properties, and that makes them very nervous.
“It’s federally illegal and we can’t have it in our resorts,” said Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations.
The solution is to set up marijuana clubs up and down the Strip, so tourists can get high in a social setting and then (hopefully)venture out and try their luck at casino gambling (or buy some munchies and take a nap).
The Nevada Senate has already approved the plan, by a vote of 12-9. But the bill could backfire, bringing down the wrath of the federal government and its anti-pot legalization attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
If passed and signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval, SB 236 would make Nevada the only state allowing recreation marijuana clubs.
While Nevada was pondering this move, lawmakers in Colorado rejected a similar plan. “Gov. John Hickenlooper warned that such a move could draw the ire of the administration and bring federal drug enforcers down upon the state’s billion-dollar industry,” reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
But it’s a risk that a majority of Nevada senators are willing to take.
“Nevada is known for its legal vices and pleasure, which is why many people come here. We allow some things other states do not, things everyone may not condone but are nonetheless going on within a couple of miles of this building,” Segerblom told fellow senators during a legislative hearing.
“Forty-six million tourists come to Nevada annually to have fun. When the recreational dispensaries open, some of them will buy marijuana. What will they do with it? Will they take it back to their hotel rooms or walk up and down the streets smoking? We do not know,” he added. “Rather than creating a headache for law enforcement and a hazard for other people, let us provide a proper venue. We do not want tourists using marijuana in parks near your kids or walking down The Strip. They have legally bought a product we have taxed and are making money off of, so we need to find a place where they can use it.”
He pointed out that cities and counties will not be required to issue such permits, but they can if they want to. That’s good, because the 43 percent of senators who voted against the bill were all Republicans and mostly from rural areas, including our own Sen. Pete Goicoechea.
Marijuana social clubs don’t have much support in rural parts of Nevada, but it is clear that Las Vegas officials and the casino industry want them. That means the bill is almost certain to pass. Then we will find out if Nevada benefits financially from legalized marijuana, or if the Trump administration shuts down the recreational pot industry entirely.