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The Las Vegas City Council approved social-use marijuana lounges May 1, 2019, creating a legal outlet for the millions of tourists who have been able to buy adult-use cannabis since 2017, but had nowhere to consume it legally.

By a 4-1 vote, the council approved an ordinance that allows smoking and vaping in approved, indoor venues that aren't visible to the public from outside. However, lounges cannot be in casinos or in venues that serve alcohol. The boundaries of the city of Las Vegas cover only certain parts of the valley, most notably downtown. The world-famous Las Vegas Strip is in unincorporated Clark County and governed by the County Commission, so it's unaffected by the new ordinance.

Further, patrons and employees must be 21 or older. Cannabis cannot be sold on site and the venue must operate a purification system to eliminate smoke or vapor containing THC from the ambient air.

Council member Bob Coffin introduced the ordinance, which turned out to be something of a last hurrah for the politician before his term expires in summer 2019. He called it "in essence, a pilot program" since special-use permits for lounges will be restricted in the first year to businesses that already have a dispensary license. The annual permits cost $5,000 and, city spokesperson Jace Radke said it could take several months for the 20 or so licensed recreational marijuana sales dispensaries in Las Vegas to get permits to open hookah-style consumption lounges.

Council member Cedric Crear, who voted for the ordinance, agreed that lounges could reduce the problem of people smoking cannabis in hotel rooms, cars, garages, and parks.

“If anybody on the resort side thinks that people aren't vaping in their casino, they are completely oblivious to what's going on," said Tina Ulman, director of development for the Las Vegas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We have to give people a safe place to consume … You walk down Las Vegas Boulevard, (and) you absolutely smell cannabis everywhere.”

The ordinance was a do-or-die effort after a similar version was tabled during a City Council meeting in March 2019. Las Vegas Metro Police opposed language that allowed alcohol in the lounges. Coffin agreed “out of respect for Metro” to remove alcohol from the equation in a new draft of the ordinance. The tactic worked. Metro Police got on board and Officer Sam Diaz appeared before the May 1 meeting to confirm the endorsement.

The loudest voice of concern was from the resort industry, which is forbidden to mix casinos and cannabis by the Nevada Gaming Commission — a position unlikely to change as long as marijuana is considered a Schedule I narcotic by the federal government.

“We fear that it's only a matter of time before the Gaming Control Board holds its licensees accountable for marijuana-related activities that don't even occur on their properties,” said Patrick Hughes, CEO of the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall flanked by casino resorts such as the Golden Nugget and Four Queens. “We're already, as the Fremont Street Experience, finding it incredibly difficult to limit public consumption with recreational availability."

Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine requested “in the spirit of cooperation” a buffer zone of at least 1,500 feet between a cannabis dispensary or lounge and a property with a non-restricted gaming license. Crear suggested a reduced buffer zone of 1,000 feet for casinos, which was amended into the ordinance before the final vote.

Las Vegas has adult-use dispensaries, such as NuLeaf, above, but it could also get consumption lounges after the City Council voted 4-1 on May 1, 2019, to allow consumption lounges. While cannabis sales are legal, the plant can't be consumed legally in public or in Southern Nevada's abundant hotel rooms. For now, consumption lounge licenses will be offered to existing dispensary owners only. (Associated Press file photo/John Locher)

Council member Michele Fiore said the casino industry should know that Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who has embraced the economic benefits of cannabis, isn't going to appoint gaming commissioners eager to hand out punishment over matters related to marijuana. “I want to take the fear out of our casinos and say 'don't be scared' because our governor is not going to go and have the gaming control board start fining you,” she said.  

Some marijuana advocates are in favor of lounges, but said the ordinance went about it the wrong way. Local businessman Mark Cohen said restricting lounge permits to dispensary owners is “akin to saying you can only open a bar if you're attached to the liquor store.”

Others felt the city missed an opportunity to inject new life into the ongoing downtown resurgence. “The way the bill is written, it's actually not going to be the development boost it could be,” said Paul Murad of Metroplex Realty. “If you allow an opportunity for anyone who goes through the rigorous licensing process and rigorous SUP (special-use permit) process and not just make it dispensaries only, then you can have dozens (or) potentially hundreds of prospective new tenants.”

There were also concerns the ordinance fell on the wrong side of social justice and social equity issues by putting permits out of reach for minorities and women. “I'm a 26-year-old African American female and I represent a very small percentage of the cannabis business population,” said Kristal Chamblee, a local chef known for infusions. “I know far too many of my own color locked away for doing what is now legal and profitable to a select few.”

In casting the lone dissenting vote, Council member Stavros Anthony, an admitted skeptic who became impressed with the marijuana industry's evolution in Southern Nevada. However, he said Las Vegas shouldn't feel rushed to move ahead with lounges on its own. He noted that while state legislation on public consumption has stalled,  Sisolak has ordered an advisory panel and compliance board to tackle cannabis laws. The current legislative session is scheduled to run until June 2019.

“The state hasn't weighed in on this and they're going to weigh in on it, whether it's a bill or the governor's task force,” Anthony argued before the vote. “I truly believe we need to take a regional approach to this. It can't just be the city of Las Vegas. We should have Clark County involved. We should have North Las Vegas and Henderson involved.”

“We can't wait for the state to act,” Coffin replied, noting the ordinance is based on two years of research. “We have to move as leaders and we have to make some assumptions that there's no great resistance or objection to these lounges. I have never had a complaint from anybody in my district in terms of people (being) scared of lounges.”

County commissioners are taking a wait-and-see approach with state legislators in place of tackling the issue of lounges themselves. By beating the Strip to the punch, downtown is poised to siphon off a few more tourism dollars from visitors eager to enjoy legal Vegas cannabis..

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Featured image: Customers smoke marijuana on March 1, 2018, in a cannabis consumption lounge in San Francisco. Consumption lounges, a rarity in the U.S. even in adult-use states, will be coming to Las Vegas. The City Council on May 1, 2019, approved an ordinance to allow the lounges in the city, albeit with some restrictions where they can operate. (Associated Press file photo/Jeff Chiu)