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Recreational marijuana consumption lounges - a rarity nationally - remain a pipe dream in Clark County

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
A customer and retailer exchanging money at a cannabis retailer

There are 42 places to legally purchase marijuana in Clark County, but for the more than 43 million tourists who visit southern Nevada every year, there’s a grand total of zero places to publicly consume the drug.

Dreams of cannabis-inspired restaurants, marijuana-infused yoga and other “pot-in-the-sky” ideas floundered Tuesday when six of seven members of the Clark County Commission decided against taking any steps toward allowing marijuana consumption lounges, even after attorneys for state lawmakers said last week that such facilities weren’t necessarily prohibited under state law.

Despite the enthusiastic public commenters and unanswered questions about where tourists — Nevada doesn’t require an in-state ID to purchase the drug — can legally consume cannabis, commissioners took umbrage at the thought of licensing or allowing for public consumption lounges, and questioned exactly how the county would police the facilities, public health concerns and how any potential “pot parlors” would be taxed.

Though Nevada voters approved a 2016 ballot measure paving the way for recreational marijuana sales to begin in July 2017, state and local officials have yet to directly tackle the question of where tourists — an expected large segment of the projected $70 million in state recreational marijuana sales are expected to come from out-of-staters — are supposed to legally smoke, eat or otherwise consume the drug, given bans on general public consumption and opposition from the state’s gaming and hotel industry.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who suggested the agenda item and was the only yes on the informal, nonbinding vote, said she wanted to bring the item forward as a way of addressing the tourism issue.

“We’re setting people up for failure and for getting in trouble, especially for our tourists,” she said.

But other members of the commission didn’t share the idea. Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick laid out a laundry list of concerns with the proposal, including who would enforce a hypothetical ordinance, how much it would cost to oversee and how such businesses would be taxed. Commissioner Susan Brager said she had concerns about ventilation of consumption lounges and potential for secondary use outside the businesses.

“I think this is like a runaway train,” she said. “There will be no way to put brakes on unless we do it properly.”

Much of the discussion was prompted by an opinion authored by Legislative Counsel Bureau — the in-house legal counsel for members of the Legislature — which issued an opinion last week stating that nothing in state law or the recreational marijuana ballot measure would prohibit cities or municipalities from establishing a marijuana lounge or hosting a special event allowing marijuana use.

County legal staff said that the LCB opinion went further than what the county believed, but said that the commission likely has the power to allow recreational marijuana lounges if they were limited to members-only or had other barriers to full public access.

Although the commission’s informal poll showed staunch opposition, the results aren’t exactly binding — commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said the board could revisit the issue several months down the line if it chooses to do so.

In a statement sent last week, Gov. Brian Sandoval said that he disagreed with the opinion and believed explicit legislative permission was required before marijuana consumption lounges could be opened. He said the state’s Department of Taxation was requesting further guidance from the state attorney general’s office, and that opening the lounges could “invite enforcement by the federal government.”

“I am concerned with these establishments popping up piecemeal throughout the state with differing rules and regulatory structure,” he said in a statement.

Democratic state Sen. Tick Segerblom proposed a “marijuana lounge” bill during the 2017 legislative session that would have allowed counties and cities to issue permits to businesses and special events for public marijuana consumption, but the measure failed to advance in the Assembly and reach Sandoval’s desk.

Denver voters last year approved a first-in-the-nation law allowing people to use cannabis at bars and other public spaces, but requires approval from neighbors and prohibits smoking. City officials began accepting applications for “social consumption areas” in August.

Commissioners gave a more friendly look toward changing a county ordinance allowing recreational marijuana dispensaries to stay open for 24 hours — industry advocates said the change would help security at certain retail sites and give night owls the chance to buy marijuana legally at all hours. The change will likely be voted on during a commission meeting in the next few weeks.

Segerblom, the state senator who requested the opinion and is running for County Commission in 2018, said he expected marijuana consumption issues to be dealt with at a local government level and expressed optimism that the commission and other local governments had at least opened the door to publicly discussing a previously taboo issue.

“You can either put your head in the sand and act like this doesn’t exist, or you can face reality,” he said. “This is the first actual day of facing reality. It’s going to take awhile.”

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