The recent news that marijuana lounges have been legalized in Las Vegas may have sparked some negative deja vu among cannabis consumers. That’s understandable.
We’ve heard this story before. Vegas was said to legalize weed lounges back in 2017. And again in 2019.
The new law allows up to 70 cannabis lounges statewide. The law takes effect on Oct. 1, 2021.
The first failed attempt at bringing marijuana lounges happened when Nevada’s then-Republican governor shot down an attempt from state Sen. Tick Segerblom, Nevada’s godfather of legal weed, to make it happen. The second and most painful lounge debacle came after Las Vegas city officials approved an ordinance two years ago only for gaming-backed politicians at the state level to step in and overrule it.
July 1 will mark the fourth anniversary of adult-use sales launching in the Silver State. And yet there’s still nowhere for tourists to enjoy the plant besides a small tasting room on tribal land just north of Vegas.
Earlier this month, though, the green light finally came from the state.
Assembly Bill 341 passed through the Democrat-controlled Nevada Assembly and Senate last month. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed it into law on June 4.
The new law allows for up to 70 lounges across the state—35 for current dispensary owners to attach to their stores, and 35 standalone venues for independent owners. Customers will be allowed to smoke, eat, drop, dab or vape the plant in a weed-friendly indoor setting.
Outdoor events allowed too
A separate bill to allow cannabis at concerts and festivals failed, but part of that bill merged into AB341. It lets licensed lounges host outdoor events with marijuana, as long as the event is on lounge property.
Unlike every other type of marijuana establishment in Nevada, a cannabis lounge license is open to just about anybody who wants to apply for one. That’s according to Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), who sponsored the bill. Yeager said he’s hoping more women and minority entrepreneurs get involved as owners of cannabis companies.
“We decided to offer one lounge for each ownership group and match it one-to-one with independent lounges,” Yeager said. “We were tired of waiting, and just did everything we could to finally get this passed and signed.
Law takes effect Oct. 1, 2021
The new law doesn’t go into effect until October 1, 2021. Yeager and other interviewed officials, including Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, said they expect the first lounges to open around spring of 2022 at the earliest.
The bill calls also for Nevada’s Cannabis Compliance Board (CCB) to develop a regulatory framework for cannabis lounges. That includes deciding how much weed people can buy at the lounges, or bring inside with them. Most importantly, the CCB is tasked with defining what a “social equity applicant” means.
Defining an equity applicant
Is it just a matter of race and gender? Or does it factor personal experiences, like being jailed in the past for possessing cannabis? Yeager said he left the bill’s language open-ended to give the CCB leaders flexibility.
A CCB spokeswoman said the board’s members had yet to start crafting regulations, but offered that “all underrepresented groups and those who have been adversely affected by cannabis prohibition” would be considered in the final social equity rules.
Some in the industry doubt it. They claim the new law is ripe for corruption similar to the infamous 2018 licensing scandal that, despite offering extra points for diversity, put all of the state’s remaining dispensary permits in the hands of less than 12% of companies that applied. All but one of the winning companies had white men as majority owners.
$10k for a lounge permit
Expensive lounge fees may also deter minority applicants from applying, said Vegas medical cannabis activist Timothy Eliado. Winners of the lounge permits will owe $10,000 just to open for business, and another $10,000 to renew their permits each year. The law calls for “some” social equity applicants to receive “up to” a 75% reduction of those fees, though it doesn’t provide any specifics.
“Minorities have been cast out of the industry while licensees have had the opportunity to raise money all of these years through their stores,” Eliado said. “Real social equity means people who have contributed to this industry getting an equal opportunity.”
Store owners uncertain about adding lounges
Interviewed dispensary owners in Sin City had little to say about their plans for the new lounges with the launch date still so far away. After several years with essentially no competition, many weed store owners are still deciding whether adding a consumption room will be worth the investment.
“You have to figure out if you can make any money with them,” said David Goldwater, owner of Inyo Fine Cannabis dispensary just off the Strip.
The Reserve’s 12 rooms are waiting
At least one Vegas lounge is ready to open, though. The Reserve, a 12-room, 7,000-square-foot entertainment venue on the second floor above Nevada Wellness Center, has been sitting empty for two years. Owner Frank Hawkins, a former NFL running back turned weed mogul, built out the lounge back in 2019 after getting the thumbs-up from the Vegas city council.
A dimly lit common room — with pub-style lights, a slew of TVs, and a mega-projector — will greet customers as they walk inside. Through narrow hallways on either side of a 2,500-square-foot common area, a dozen doors lead to custom rooms for people who want to blaze in private.
Life-size images of marijuana folk heroes Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, and Barack Obama fill the Reserve’s “boardroom” and leather executive chairs surround an oval-shaped wood-grain table in the center of the room. Hawkins says groups here can enjoy a blunt while doing business surrounded by some of history’s most influential faces.
Welcome to the Raider Room
“We want this to be inspiring,” he said, “to remind people of the possibilities when you put bright minds together.”
Down the hall, wall stickers of Bo Jackson, Al Davis, Marcus Allen, Jim Plunkett, and Hawkins himself shine within a glut of silver-and-black legends adorning the lounge’s Raider Room. A microphone with a matching pop filter hangs from the ceiling in the Reserve’s recording studio, and another room offers open space and a couple of sets of virtual-reality goggles for a stoned VR adventure. Hawkins also set aside a space for dominoes and threw a shuffleboard table in the main lobby.
He hopes officials won’t pull the rug out from underneath him again like they did in 2019. Until the Reserve opens for business and the first customers walk through the doors, Hawkins — like most of us — remains a skeptic.
“I’ll believe it when it when it happens,” he said. “There’s still a ways to go and we all know by now that it’s never guaranteed.”