Cannabition is a unique blend of two prominent industries in Las Vegas — tourism and cannabis. The venue, inside the Neonopolis retail complex on the popular Fremont Street Experience in downtown, is a first-of-its-kind art museum dedicated to cannabis.
"We take people on the journey from seed through celebration in larger than life installations that are highly photogenic and immersive," said Cannabition founder JJ Walker.
Interactive exhibits include a giant bag of weed, human-size marijuana buds, and a slide that allows a person to be “exhaled” through a pair of lips. They're found alongside “Bongzilla” — billed as the world's largest bong at 24 feet (7.3 meters) tall. As can be expected, photos are highly encouraged. Cannabition is an experience that's meant to be shared on social media.
All the pieces appeared to fall in place in late August 2018, when local politicians and business leaders took part in a grand opening celebration. Mayor Carolyn Goodman even led a hemp torching ceremony in place of a traditional ribbon cutting.
However, overall support from the city of Las Vegas wasn't as enthusiastic as it appeared on the surface.
“The city fucks with me every which way,” Walker said eight months later in April 2019. “This place at its core is not very small-business-friendly, but when you add the component of cannabis, everybody in this industry struggles on a constant basis with changing regulations.”
To operate in the city of Las Vegas, Cannabition was given a conditional business license that required its patrons to be 21 or older.
"Why?" asked Walker. "We're not a special-use business. We're not selling cannabis. We don't have cannabis onsite or consumption of cannabis. So why do we have to be 21-plus?"
The license also forbids any cannabis on site, although possession of up to 1 ounce, or 28.35 grams, for personal use is legal in Nevada. According to Walker, there is a fragile level of security and a certain degree of risk that comes with being issued a conditional business license.
“They can come in and shut us down for almost any reason they want,” he said. “If they come in and say they smell marijuana, they could shut us down. If we accidentally let in somebody under 21, they could shut us down. If some guy walks in with marijuana in his pocket, I'm the one who can get in trouble for that.”
To complicate matters further, Cannabition has a banquet license to rent its space out for private events, which comes with a whole new set of restrictions. Ticket sales are prohibited — an effort to preserve familiarity among guests — and the 21-and-older rule is still in place, ruling out weddings or other functions with children.
While the restrictions no doubt affect business, according to Walker ticket revenue has grown consistently since Cannabition opened and is optimistic about the spring and summer months. He's rotated in some new exhibits, including a room inspired by “That '70s Show” and a replica of the "Scooby-Doo" Mystery Machine. It replaced a red Chevrolet Caprice that once belonged to Hunter S. Thompson and was featured in the movie adaption of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Ultimately, part of the long-term strategy for Cannabition's success is to eventually incorporate cannabis consumption. For now, that's still illegal, although the Las Vegas City Council is considering a long-delayed ordinance on May 1, 2019, to approve a form of lounges. According to Walker, the Fremont Street Experience and the Nevada Resort Association are the biggest "non-supporters" of the cannabis industry fighting it. The big issue — most large resorts in Las Vegas have casinos and as long as the federal government views cannabis as an illegal Schedule I narcotic, casino operators will likely continue to avoid putting gaming licenses at risk.
“There's been a clear mandate from the Nevada Gaming Commission and the Gaming Control Board that the gaming industry and the marijuana industry shall not meet,” said Dawn Christensen of the Nevada Resort Association. “So our concern with the ordinance is certainly the proximity issue to resorts and non-restricted licenses in the area of the city of Las Vegas and in particular the downtown area.”
The association is pushing for a buffer zone of at least 1,500 feet, or 457 meters, between a marijuana establishment and any property with a gaming license. However, Walker argues that having a consumption lounge near a resort is a good thing because it discourages visitors from smoking or consuming cannabis in their hotel rooms.
“We're providing a solution that they're fighting against,” he said.
May 1, 2019, marks the final time this particular ordinance will be considered. If it fails to pass, it's back to the drawing board. On the other hand, if it does pass, Cannabition could potentially apply for a special-use permit for consumption. That would open the door to a whole new level of scrutiny — not to mention public comment from the Nevada Resort Association and others in the approval process.
Walker seems ready for anything, but can Cannabition survive in its current incarnation based on ticket sales alone? "To be determined," Walker said.
Featured Image: Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and JJ Walker at the grand opening of Cannabition where dignitaries torched a hemp rope instead of cutting a ribbon.