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Washoe takes prohibitionist approach to cannabis lounges

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Marijuana is displayed inside Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent.

Marijuana might be legal in Nevada, but that doesn’t mean elected officials are ready to treat the industry as a legitimate sector of our economy just yet. 

Washoe County commissioners recently voted against allowing cannabis consumption lounges to operate in its unincorporated parts — demonstrating just how difficult entrepreneurial progress often is for an industry long targeted by drug warriors, social scolds and prohibitionists of all stripes. 

As The Nevada Independent reported last week, the vote means SoL Cannabis won’t be able to move forward with plans to open Northern Nevada’s only lounge where adults would have been allowed to consume cannabis products on site. 

The vote is a setback for more than just one cannabis company. It’s a setback for the entire industry, as it demonstrated the headwinds faced by cannabis operators who have long struggled to escape the cultural clutches of the nation’s failed war on drugs. 

Indeed, the entire concept of legalizing cannabis lounges has been an arduous battle for would-be entrepreneurs who have had to face political obstinance, regulatory challenges and cultural opposition to their emerging businesses. So far, only three businesses have been given preliminary approval by Nevada’s Cannabis Compliance Board to establish consumption lounges — and those three are still subject to local approval and regulations before moving forward. 

As we’ve seen recently in Washoe County, those local governmental hurdles are proving to be difficult to clear. 

Even in the city of Las Vegas, would-be lounge operators have faced political prejudice against their business model and products. Earlier this year, for example, Las Vegas city officials effectively dashed the hopes of a cannabis “district” downtown by adopting a plethora of regulatory requirements that require lounges to be located a minimum distance away from churches, parks, casinos and even other lounges. 

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the relatively friendly approach unincorporated Clark County has taken toward the industry — thanks largely to the efforts of Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom — it would be reasonable to wonder whether Nevada will ever actually see cannabis lounges become a reality. 

Ostensibly, Washoe County’s prohibitionist approach toward such businesses is in the interest of “public safety” — something about which many public commenters seemed highly concerned.

“One thing that is lacking in the conditions [for cannabis consumption lounge licenses] is making sure that the lounges are on a public transportation route so people are not having to drive their own vehicles,” said Tracey Thomas, vice chair of the Washoe County GOP. 

Given that the Washoe County GOP probably won’t be lobbying for a massive expansion of public transit options any time soon, Thomas’ comments were effectively a call for prohibiting such establishments throughout much of the county. 

But are concerns over impaired driving really a valid justification for banning an entire business model in unincorporated portions of the county?  

Certainly, the possibility that patrons of a cannabis lounge might drive while high is real — but that’s likely true regardless of the establishment’s proximity to bus stops. Such potential (and illegal) behavior doesn’t merit banning an entire business model based on a lack of nearby commuter rail options. 

If it did, imagine the impact such standards would have on other industries that similarly impair people’s judgment and cognitive abilities. How many bars, taverns, casinos and restaurants serving alcohol currently lack the kind of direct access to public transit that Thomas suggests should be mandatory for a cannabis lounge? Should concern over intoxicated drivers be used to justify a new temperance movement throughout unincorporated Washoe County — or is fear over impaired driving being selectively applied to an industry that is just now beginning to emerge from the ruins of a failed five-decade war against drugs? 

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate public safety concerns related to the proliferation of cannabis lounges in Washoe County or elsewhere in the state. However, pushing the consumption of marijuana back underground through onerous regulations or outright prohibition does nothing to alleviate those concerns. After all, if the last half-century of America’s failed “War on Drugs” can teach us anything, it should be that prohibitionist public policies aren’t well known for putting an end to irresponsible drug use — nor do they do much to keep communities safe from it. 

To be sure, the legalization of cannabis lounges offers the industry a legitimacy it didn’t necessarily receive when Nevadans voted several years ago to merely make the industry legal. Even newly legalized sectors of the economy deserve the opportunity to grow and flourish. However, it also offers us a glimpse at just how persistently electeds have clung to the outdated cultural mores of that ill-advised drug war

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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