Las Vegas council approves marijuana ‘social’ lounges


Jeff Chiu / AP

In this file photo, customers smoke marijuana while sitting in a booth in the smoking lounge at Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco.

Published Wed, May 1, 2019 (3:51 p.m.)

Updated Wed, May 1, 2019 (5:34 p.m.)

The city of Las Vegas will allow marijuana social-use lounges for the first time in an effort to provide public spaces for marijuana consumption two years after legalized recreational sales launched in Nevada.

Under the new city ordinance, which was passed today in a 4-1 vote by the city council, licensed marijuana businesses in Nevada will be permitted to apply for special-use permits to open consumption lounges at which cannabis products may be sold and consumed on site. After one year, other interested business owners — including those who have not received licenses to operate marijuana dispensaries in Nevada – will be permitted to apply for consumption lounge permits as well.

Supporters of the ordinance noted that while it is legal to purchase marijuana from licensed dispensaries in Nevada, there are limited legal options for the millions of tourists visiting Las Vegas to lawfully consume the substance. It remains illegal to smoke or ingest marijuana in most hotels and public places, including casinos, bars, restaurants and on the street.

Proposed by Councilman Bob Coffin, the measure was supported by council members Michele Fiore and Cedric Crear and Mayor Pro-Tempore Lois Tarkanian, in addition to Coffin. Stavros Anthony voted against the ordinance, and Mayor Carolyn Goodman abstained from the vote, citing a conflict of interest due to a family member involved in the cannabis industry.

The vote came a month and a half after the council put the brakes on an earlier version of Coffin’s ordinance, as other councilors wanted more time to tweak the measure and hear the concerns of those resistant to the lounges. Fiore and Crear said they were confident that the latest version of the ordinance, which city staff have been crafting for the past two years, will suffice for now. Tarkanian was more hesitant, but ultimately voted yes.

“I think that we need these social-use venues,” Crear said. “It allows people that are coming into town a place to go smoke legally.”

Representatives of the marijuana industry described the measure as a necessity for Las Vegas, a community that relies heavily on tourism and markets itself as a place for indulgence and vice. The city will be the first in Nevada to allow marijuana consumption lounges.

“Everybody in this industry is supportive of what this is,” said John Mueller, CEO of Acres Cannabis. “It’s not the best step, but it’s a step forward.”

Opponents of the ordinance included representatives of Las Vegas gaming and tourist businesses, including the Nevada Resort Association and the Fremont Street Experience. They voiced concern about potential impacts of social-use venues on the gaming industry and tourist destinations, such as Fremont Street.

“We’re already finding it incredibly difficult to limit public consumption with recreational [marijuana] availability,” said Patrick Hughes, CEO of the Fremont Street Experience. “We’re very concerned about expanding that industry without proper oversight similar to the gaming industry.”

Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, requested that the city consider adapting provisions that would forbid any marijuana lounges from opening within 1,500 feet of gaming districts.

But Senior City Attorney Bryan Scott, who helped write the ordinance, said the city would be “hard-pressed” to impose a larger distance separation for casinos and gaming establishments than for protected establishments, such as schools, daycare centers and places of worship.

“Casinos are not considered protective uses under our code,” Scott said.

In the end, council members who supported the measure agreed to forbid any marijuana lounges from opening within 1,000 feet of parcels in which nonrestricted gaming is conducted, establishing the same distance separation as already exists for protected uses like schools. In addition, the final ordinance requires businesses to devise plans outlining security, sanitation, odor control and employee training measures, and forbids the sale of alcohol on site.

Anthony, who criticized Coffin’s measure when it was discussed in March, continued to oppose the ordinance, questioning why the city needed to establish provisions for marijuana lounges at this time.

“I truly believe we need to take a regional approach to this,” Anthony said. “It can’t just be the city of Las Vegas.”

Some in the cannabis industry opposed the measure based on the stipulation that only licensed businesses will be able to open consumption lounges for the first year, with one critic comparing it to forbidding anyone but liquor store owners from opening bars. Others said that this provision, along with the annual $5,000 license fee for all businesses, will create barriers for local residents looking to break into the industry, especially women and minorities.

“The way this is written, only a small group of businesses and individuals will be able to participate,” said Rebecca Perrick of Women Grow Las Vegas, an organization that recruits and supports women in the cannabis industry.

Coffin and Fiore defended only allowing businesses that have been granted licenses by the state to open consumption lounges in the first year that the ordinance is in place.

“Why only the current licensees? Again, that’s because they did a better job we think, and the state will catch up,” Coffin said, referring to the licensing process for dispensaries through the state Department of Taxation.

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