After three years of political gridlock over cannabis consumption lounges in Nevada, the state Legislature recently passed a measure to kick the can down the road for yet another two years, preventing lounges from opening until at least 2021.
But with tourists and residents alike in need of a legal place to consume, one tribal operator isn’t waiting.
On Saturday, the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe will open its 1,200 square-foot Vegas Tasting Room, housed inside its 15,800 square-foot cannabis megastore that sits on tribal land just two blocks north of downtown Las Vegas. The lounge will offer small samples of 20 of the store’s 1,000 cannabis products, including flower, concentrates, vape cartridges, and even THC-infused beer.
All dressed up, no place to smoke
Only about 3 million people live in Nevada, but thanks to more than 45 million tourists who visit the Silver State each year, the states cannabis business is booming. But there’s a problem: If tourists buy legal cannabis at one of Nevada’s 66 licensed retailers, they have nowhere to consume it. The state’s highly regulated casinos and resorts avoid the plant like the plague, fearing losing their valuable gaming licenses or, worse, prompting federal intervention. And as in nearly every other legal state, cannabis in Nevada can’t be consumed in public parks, near schools, or in motor vehicles.
So what do tourists do? In general, they risk it. Most visitors resort to smoking surreptitiously in parking lots, sneaking puffs from vape pens, or opting for infused food or beverages that can be consumed relatively covertly. That’s hardly ideal—especially for beginners, for whom a too-strong high can be uncomfortable or altogether alarming.
Alfreda Mitre, a member of the Paiute Tribal Council, said the tasting room will give consumers a safe, welcoming place to learn about cannabis and see what they like best.
“It’s a safe and secure area to try products under the guidance of staff that are familiar with them and who can monitor how customers react,” Mitre explained. “We’ll be giving sample-size products to our customers to educate them and let them experience the products we’re selling in the store.”
“This is for an experience to know what cannabis is, to get the whole profile of a cannabis plant, of the terpene profiles and all the flavors.”
The tasting room is luxuriously appointed, featuring a 20-foot dab bar, seven flat-screen TVs, a slew of product display shelves, and more than a dozen leather seats and sofas. It’s meant to accommodate around 75 people at a time. Each visitor will be able to choose up to six sample-size portions of various products.
Think of it more like wine-tasting than a night at the watering hole. Benny Tso, the tribe’s former chairman who helped open NuWu Cannabis Marketplace in 2017, said the tasting room is “not yet a full-blown, come-kick-it spot for getting ripped,” noting that sample sizes are modest and visitors will be limited to about 30 minutes inside.
The tribe said the samples—which include 0.2 grams of flower and 0.1 grams of concentrates and vape juice—should not have enough THC to seriously impair most visitors. For consumers with lower tolerances, the tasting room has also partnered with a local taxi company and has a pickup spot for ridesharing companies.
“This is for an experience to know what cannabis is, to get the whole profile of a cannabis plant, of the terpene profiles and all the flavors,” Tso said. “We’re not going to get people high with such small quantities and we don’t want put our roads in danger.”
The tasting room will be open from noon to 8 p.m. from Sunday through Wednesday and noon to 1 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It’s expected to allow the tribe to hire an additional 40 employees, adding to its current staff of about 90. Mitre said the Paiutes recruited new employees from the hospitality industry to replicate the quality of service offered at bars on the Strip. Paiute leaders also visited tasting lounges in San Diego and Denver before deciding to model their new sample room after a wine-tasting venue.
To help keep wait times down, the tribe plans to offer reserved time slots in the tasting room during peak hours.
‘A chance to lead’
While most Nevada cannabis businesses are banned by state law from offering any kind of on-site consumption, tribes in Nevada are protected by a special regulation. Senate Bill 375, passed during the 2017 legislative session, allows tribes to negotiate directly with the Nevada governor’s office on the use and sale of cannabis on tribal lands. Likewise, it gives the governor authority to bypass federal laws that otherwise limit commerce talks between tribes and Congress.
Tso, the former Paiute chairman, said the tribe consulted with elected Nevada officials on the local, state, and federal levels before deciding to move forward with the tasting room.
“They understand we have our own government and we understand they have their own government,” he said. “We know all eyes are on us for this, and we’ve been fortunate to foster good relationships.”
Among those credited with supporting the tribe was Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear, who checked out the new tasting room Wednesday evening as part of an advance tour with Leafly and the Tribal Council. Crear, whose district includes downtown Las Vegas and the land surrounding the Paiutes’ dispensary, called the occasion “a chance to lead.”
If done right, the Paiutes’ lounge could serve as a model of success for local governments and the state to follow, Crear said.
“They’ve been a solid operator so far on the dispensary side, and this seems like a smart idea,” he said. “The tribe is in a position to do a great service to our community.”
Correction: Due to a miscommunication, an earlier version of this story said that cannabis samples in the tasting room would be offered free of charge. In fact they will range in price from $8 to $25.