Cannabis Crossover

Las Vegas City Officials Debate Alcohol in Marijuana Lounges

Sin City weighs the possibility of allowing low-ABV beverages in proposed on-premise cannabis venues

Las Vegas City Officials Debate Alcohol in Marijuana Lounges
Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Since marijuana was approved for legal recreational use in Nevada in the 2016 election, Las Vegas officials have worked to make Sin City’s cannabis industry accommodating and hospitable for as many users as possible.

Some marijuana stores double as entertainment venues, with interactive games and restaurants, while at many others cultivation, testing, and extraction labs are open for the public to tour. Most recently, the opening of the world’s largest dispensary last November has fed into the city’s reputation for going above and beyond to cater to visitors’ interest in ways other pot-legal cities across the U.S. haven’t yet dared to explore.

But cannabis is not without controversy, even in Las Vegas—which is contemplating becoming the first city in the U.S. to allow alcohol consumption in proposed marijuana smoking venues. City officials have deliberated for 15 months on an 11-page ordinance that would allow cannabis lounges that serve alcohol to open as soon as June 2019. The measure was tabled during a March 20 city council meeting until May. If it comes to a vote two months from now and is passed, lounge owners could sell alcoholic beverages as long as the drinks contained less than 11% ABV. With this stipulation, the lounges are expected to primarily sell just beer and wine spritzers—and to sell them in cans and bottles, to ensure compliance.

Proponents of pairing marijuana and alcohol in hookah-style social-use lounges argue that such a legal venue would represent the ultimate end to marijuana prohibition, pushing the plant toward its inevitable entry into mainstream U.S. society. They also say that the pairing would give alcohol companies an opportunity to participate and thrive in one of Nevada’s fastest-growing industries.

Opponents argue that the combination of marijuana and alcohol is being rushed and that the city should start with marijuana-only lounges before adding alcohol. The combination, they say, could create unintended health consequences, since there’s limited formal research available on marijuana’s effects on its users and its interaction with alcohol. Those consequences could include significantly impaired drivers on Nevada’s roads, risking their own safety and that of others.

Councilman Bob Coffin, a longtime Nevada legislator whose political career dates to 1982, sponsored the ordinance as a last hurrah before announcing he’d be retiring this summer. The 76-year-old city official said in January that he’d be open to suggestions from community leaders and organizations—and that all options were on the table. “There’s a real push for this,” Coffin said at the time. “It’s going to be difficult to restrict the lounges. But we’re also being careful and moving slowly.”

Coffin’s most influential opponent in this debate isn’t the all-powerful Nevada Resort Association—which represents the $30 billion Las Vegas gaming industry and which came out in opposition to the lounges last fall—but rather the sheriff of the state’s largest police force. Coffin says Clark County sheriff Joe Lombardo has requested that alcohol sales be scrapped from the ordinance to keep Nevada’s roads safer. A government affairs spokesman from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police confirmed Lombardo’s position.

Frank Hawkins, a former NFL running back whose team, the Los Angeles Raiders, won Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, is a Las Vegas native who returned home after his football career and now co-owns Nevada Wellness Dispensary, one of the city’s longest-running legal marijuana stores. Hawkins is reserving space—the second floor of his dispensary—for a smoking lounge, as are more than a dozen other Sin City dispensary owners interviewed by SevenFifty Daily. Like Lombardo, Hawkins thinks the push to add alcohol sales would be moving too fast. “Our industry and our state have a lot to lose—we have a good reputation,” he says. “Why take unnecessary chances right away?”

After being shut out of a distribution battle for transporting marijuana in 2017 and losing a court challenge, alcohol vendors are proceeding with caution. The alcohol industry was included in Question 2, which passed in the 2016 election to legalize marijuana in Nevada, as the state’s primary distributor for wholesale shipments of the plant from cannabis cultivation facilities to production facilities, testing labs, and dispensaries. But the alcohol distributors’ role was minimized in the summer of 2017 after the state’s marijuana governing body, the Nevada Department of Taxation, determined not enough alcohol distributors had applied to ship the plant, and reopened distribution to the marijuana companies.

A large beer vendor in Las Vegas spoke on condition of anonymity because of the alcohol industry’s adversarial relationship with Nevada’s legal pot industry. This source, whose company is a beer distributor, said the ability to sell beer in the weed lounges of Las Vegas would help his industry “recoup” the money that was lost in the failed marijuana distribution efforts. “It’d be the right thing to do at this point, for all they’ve put us through,” he said. “But I’m not counting my chickens before the eggs hatch.”

Beatrice Elliott, the owner of Sin City Fine Wines in northwest Las Vegas, says she feels wine distributors are being unfairly left out of the new ordinance for “no reason at all.” Elliott argues that alcohol service should encompass drinks of any strength, not just those under 11% ABV. “If you’re going to serve beer, it doesn’t make sense that you wouldn’t allow wine and liquor, too,” she says. “In any establishment—whether a lounge, tavern, bar, or restaurant—you’re trusting patrons to be responsible with their alcohol, and now cannabis, consumption. I honestly don’t see what restricting it to beer accomplishes.”

Elliott adds that she’s hopeful wine and liquor will eventually be permitted at the cannabis consumption lounges in Las Vegas, if not immediately. City officials have emphasized in previous hearings on the lounges that the first renditions of the consumption venues will help highlight problems and opportunities for lawmakers to consider in future amendments of the ordinance.

Chris Kudialis, a reporter who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, has written articles for the Los Angeles Times, the Charlotte Observer, the Houston Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, Leafly, the Nevada Independent, and Brazil’s Rio Times, among other metropolitan dailies. He is an alumnus of the University of Michigan and speaks Spanish and Portuguese in addition to his native English.

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