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The Tricky Path To Legalizing Cannabis Lounges In Las Vegas

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(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Michael Leonor smokes marijuana in the smoking lounge at Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco, Thursday, March 1, 2018.

Recreational marijuana may be legal, but finding a place to consume it has been a whole other ordeal.

Ever since Nevada voted to permit adult use of cannabis two years ago, the marijuana industry has tried to get state and local governments to greenlight so-called social lounges.

Nevada law bars public consumption of cannabis in any form, and casinos won't permit it anywhere on their properties, leaving nearly all tourists and some locals with no place to smoke or ingest marijuana products now sold throughout the state.

In San Francisco, nine social lounges have legally opened, and a handful exists in Colorado. But Washington and Oregon remained stalled in permitting such venues.

Nevada could be on the cusp of opening its first social lounge, as officials with the City of Las Vegas will vote whether to allow them during its March 20 meeting. But concerns abound for its seven members and the public at large--as well as the Clark County Commission, which tabled discussions on approving the lounges last year. 

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom spearheaded the efforts to legalize marijuana in Nevada when he was in the Legislature. Now, he hopes a decision is made soon on consumption lounges.

"The problem is that we have legal marijuana, but other than you and me who have our own houses, if you're a tourist there is no place you can use it because you can't use outside, you can't use inside," he said, "We're encouraging people to  come here and purchase, but we have to say, 'By the way, you can't use it in Nevada.'"

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Segerblom said the county decided to wait until the state's newly formed Cannabis Compliance Board makes its recommendations on several issues related to the industry. Those recommendations are expected in 45 days.

Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is on that commission. She told KNPR's State of Nevada the commission is looking at a number of issues, including the rules for when someone is considered impaired by marijuana, ownership and location rules for lounges, and whether food or alcohol should be sold there as well. 

"I think that's the whole purpose [for the commission] so that we have a consistent regulation statewide with how you deal with consumption lounges," she said, "There is a lot of things still to flesh out as far as how we approach this so that we are still the best in the United States as far as recreation, consumption lounges and regulatory process."

California has had a different approach to legalizing marijuana. Instead of an overall state regulation approach, there's a hodge-podge of rules depending on decisions by local leaders, said Lindsay Robinson with the California Cannabis Industry Association.

"So certain communities have decided to move forward and some have not," she said.

Robinson said her group is pushing to have the state regulate the industry because some communities have not done anything about the issue, which is like a de facto ban.

For her group, it's a matter of safety.

"People need a safe place to be able to consume products that are now legally available on the market," she said.

Robinson pointed out that some landlords don't allow people to smoke marijuana, including public housing. Plus, consumption lounges allow other people to make sure someone hasn't overconsumed, similar to bars where bartenders will stop serving someone alcohol if they've had too much or call them a cab when they shouldn't be driving.

San Francisco is one of the communities in California that does allow marijuana consumption lounges.

Zach Ruskin, a writer for the SF Weekly, has visited the lounges there. He described them as "upscale" places where people can buy marijuana at the dispensary and then walk down the hallway to the lounge to consume the product. 

When San Francisco approved the lounges, there were concerns about the smell of marijuana, but there are strict rules for ventilation in the lounges. 

Beyond the smell, Ruskin said those opposed to the idea were really opposed to legalized marijuana in general.

"There was just your standard array of moral concerns that by having lounges it would encourage a behavior that those who oppose the lounge already are not in favor of," he said.

As for marijuana lounges in Nevada, Ruskin is "immensely" surprised that they don't exist right now.

"It's clear to me that with the legalization of cannabis and even before it, you're really not convincing anyone who wasn't already going to use it to try it, you're simply giving them a safe place to do it in," he said.

That safe place in Las Vegas might be the Planet 13 dispensary, which has 20,000 square feet of space designated to be a lounge when the ordinances are in place.

Larry Scheffler is the co-CEO of Planet 13. He said his lounge will be more than just a place to sit and smoke.

"We want an upscale place for them to come and enjoy cannabis, enjoy their stay here in Las Vegas," he said, "We're putting in right now a coffee shop and bistro that is uninfused. We're planning on infused and uninfused food in the lounge like you would any other high-end club."

Scheffler believes all marijuana lounges should be treated just like the other clubs in Las Vegas and he doesn't see why marijuana should be treated differently than alcohol on the Strip.

"Is it any different than our city, maybe one of the only cities in the world, that allows you to have open container, drink alcohol while you walk up and down the Strip?" he said.

He believes there is no reason for police to crack down on people smoking in the open.

For his part, Segerblom believes it is time for Las Vegas to get out front on the issue of marijuana consumption. 

"Once we have Larry's facility or some other facility, national press will come in and take pictures of people using it, we'll become the new Amsterdam," he said, "And then we can really capitalize on it."'

Guests

Tick Segerblom, commissioner, Clark County Commission; Larry Scheffler, co-CEO, Planet 13 dispensary; Lindsay Robinson, executive director, California Cannabis Industry Association; Zack Ruskin, writer, SF Weekly.

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