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Stop treating cannabis lounge operators as second-class entrepreneurs

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

The marijuana industry might very well be legal, but it’s hardly treated as legitimate by some of our electeds. 

Last week, Las Vegas city officials approved an ordinance to allow marijuana consumption lounges within city limits. However, it did so while preserving the most contested aspects of its plan to govern such establishments — a rule that makes an “Amsterdam-style” marijuana district in downtown’s Arts District extremely unlikely. 

The ordinance included a plethora of restrictions on where lounges may operate — including requirements that establishments be more than 1,000 feet away from schools and 300 feet away from churches or parks. 

The ordinance even requires lounges to be more than 1,500 feet away from businesses with at least 16 slot machines — which seems a bit prudish for a city that allows slot machines in bars, gas stations and even grocery stores. Apparently, it’s perfectly acceptable to allow patrons to gulp down beers and pound back whiskies while gambling on video poker machines at their local sports bar… but allowing a marijuana lounge to operate within a third of a mile of a casino is pushing the envelope too far.  

Even more injurious to the industry, however, is the council’s decision to preserve a controversial requirement that lounges maintain a distance of at least 1,000 feet from each other

So much for the dream of a “Little Amsterdam” within city limits — something plenty of would-be cannabis entrepreneurs saw as a real opportunity to incubate innovation and spur growth in an emerging industry. 

“We’re hearing a lot of different opinions... not everyone wants a little Amsterdam in a certain space,” explained Councilwoman Olivia Diaz. And that’s probably true — in the same way that not everyone wants a concentration of bars and restaurants right down the street from their home. However, in crafting an ordinance that effectively prohibits a “cannabis district,” the city is forcing lounges to spread out well beyond a small section of downtown… effectively creating a bunch of tiny Amsterdams throughout the city. 

And one has to wonder how that is an improvement for the businesses, property owners or locals who are skeptical about the idea of lounges in the first place. 

Ostensibly, the distance requirements are designed to keep the industry from disrupting local communities — but it’s hard to see how forcing patrons to travel far and wide to visit these lounges will minimize their impact. Indeed, as some industry leaders have noted, forcing patrons to travel more than three football fields to visit a casino or find another lounge will likely increase the prevalence of impaired drivers and enlarge the footprint of marijuana-related tourism well beyond the Arts District.  

Moreover, denying the organic creation of such a concentrated industry center runs counter to the way city planning apparently works in regard to many other prevalent and established industries. After all, do the leaders of Las Vegas express similar concerns over the dense concentration of gambling establishments and bars around Fremont Street? Or the concentration of antique shops on Main Street? 

Why should proprietors of cannabis lounges be treated as second-class entrepreneurs when compared to any of the other industries that constitute various “districts” downtown?

Signaling that it might be open to changing its mind in certain instances, the council retained the ability to waive the distance requirement between specific lounges on a case-by case basis… which is almost worse than the arbitrary nature of the distance requirement itself. Such waivers would be subject to a council vote, rather than any stringent or objective regulatory criteria — breeding an environment of political favoritism where the well-connected will be able to lobby for accommodations not available to competitors. 

As one hopeful entrepreneur noted in public testimony, such arbitrary exemptions inevitably give rise to a system that will disproportionately favor those with political connections to city hall — and that’s to say nothing of potential corruption, which has already marred the highly restrictive licensure process in Nevada. Certainly, the illustrious leaders of Las Vegas would never be tempted to hand out waivers to specific proprietors as political quid pro quos, right? 

Unincorporated Clark County, on the other hand, has taken a markedly different — and far more economically advantageous — approach toward prospective lounges. In fact, it’s already positioning itself to host a tourist-friendly “Cannabis District” somewhere along The Strip, outside the city’s jurisdiction. 

“We don’t have a distance separation in our ordinance and are very excited about that,” Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom told Fox 5 Vegas. “I’m looking at an area near the Strip that we can designate as a ‘Little Amsterdam,’ or ‘Amsterdam West.’”

In other words, while city officials are busy placing arbitrary restrictions that lend themselves to political abuse on an emerging market, Segerblom is actively working to create a home for the industry along the nation’s most iconic tourist corridor. It kind of makes one wonder if city officials enjoy losing business revenue to unincorporated Clark County, or if they’re merely latent prohibitionists actively trying to sabotage the ambitions of cannabis entrepreneurs within city limits. 

Either way, proprietors of legal businesses deserve better from city officials — regardless of how one might feel about their particular industry.

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael.


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