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Where Buying Marijuana is Legal, But There’s Nowhere to Smoke It

| November 11, 2017

Not as much freedom as that. (Peter Jozwiak)

Las Vegas’ reputation as a place where you can indulge your vices and have a good time helps it lure some 43 million visitors a year. But tourists heading to Sin City hoping to consume newly legal cannabis have a problem: There are few places in town, other than private homes, where someone can legally light up a joint.


In Nevada and the seven other states that allow people to consume marijuana for fun, it’s typically illegal to smoke or ingest the drug in dispensaries, bars, restaurants, city parks and public streets. Hotels and landlords often ban people from using the drug on their property.

“The next frontier is: Where do people use it?” said Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom, a Democrat who advocated for marijuana legalization. He said that creating lounges where people can legally consume the cannabis products they buy is the logical solution.

Although lawmakers have tried, no state legislature has yet carved out rules for cannabis lounges, cafes or tasting rooms.

Policymakers in Colorado, Washington and Oregon have struggled to reconcile proposed rules with other state laws such as indoor smoking bans. Lawmakers also fear that marijuana lounges could create public health and safety problems — such as increasing drugged driving — and trigger a federal crackdown.

Some cities, including Denver and Colorado Springs, have created temporary rules for lounges. But cities run into the same legal issues as states.

Entrepreneurs are opening up marijuana lounges anyway, creating problems for law enforcement. It’s typically legal for people to get together to form a private club that permits marijuana consumption. But it can be difficult to determine what is truly a private club, and many of the pot clubs advertised online in states such as Colorado aren’t private, but are open to the public.   

The four states where ballot initiatives legalized recreational marijuana last year may have the best chance of finding a solution. Nevada allows smoking inside many bars and clubs, for instance, so pot lounge proposals raise fewer concerns about indoor air quality.

And the ballot initiatives approved in California and Maine last year open the door to legal lounges. California’s initiative says cities and counties can choose to allow smoking, vaporizing and ingesting marijuana at some retail stores and other businesses. Maine’s initiative included rules for licensed marijuana clubs.

A Murky Legal Area

Clean air rules, unanswered health and safety questions, and political divisions have all stalled progress on legalizing social consumption, said Andrew Freedman, a consultant who formerly served as Colorado’s director of marijuana coordination.

“It’s just a very divisive area,” he said. Even industry leaders are split on whether such lounges should be allowed.

stateline logo analysisIn Oregon, the state’s ban on smoking cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other inhalants in workplaces has been a sticking point for lawmakers. A bill proposed this year to legalize pot lounges didn’t make it out of committee, derailed by concerns that it would weaken air quality rules and set a bad example. Similar criticism felled a Colorado bill that would have allowed consumption clubs to sell marijuana products and exempted them from clean indoor air requirements.

Alaska law permits people to consume marijuana at a dispensary. But for a year and a half, policymakers there have struggled to come up with rules for marijuana tasting rooms, dogged by questions about air quality, how to measure cannabis intoxication, and other issues such as whether to set purchase limits or ban happy hours.

In theory, it shouldn’t be this hard to come up with a policy solution. “The same questions that have been asked regarding public use of alcohol or smoking are the same kinds of questions that get presented when talking about cannabis,” said Colorado state Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat who represents part of Denver.

Policymakers ultimately have to weigh non-cannabis consumers’ right to be free of the drug against cannabis consumers’ right to use it, he said. But it’s harder to strike that balance for cannabis than for tobacco, because there’s not much research on how cannabis smoke affects bystanders. “That’s kind of keeping things at bay,” he said.

State inaction has left localities in a bind.

When the Clark County Commission, which has jurisdiction over the Las Vegas Strip, raised the marijuana lounge issue in a September meeting, they confronted a fundamental question: Does the county have legal authority to license such lounges?

The statewide ballot initiative that legalized the drug doesn’t make that explicit. Days before the commission met, lawyers for the state Legislature had found that localities have the authority to license marijuana lounges. But the Nevada attorney general hadn’t weighed in on whether pot lounges are legal — his office has since declined to do so — and Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, had said marijuana lounges need to be regulated at the state level.

“I am concerned with these establishments popping up piecemeal throughout the state with differing rules and regulatory structure,” Sandoval said in a statement released to local news outlets. A fragmented system could fail to meet federal guidelines, he said.

Faced with so much uncertainty, the seven commissioners decided to table their discussion. Commissioner James Gibson suggested that they wait and see what other localities do. “I don’t see any reason why we have to be first,” he said. “But we certainly have to be right.”

How Denver Moved Forward

Denver is one of a handful of cities that have created rules for lounges, so officials around the country are watching it closely. Denver was forced to create rules for social consumption by a 2016 ballot initiative.

Initially proponents wanted to open the door to legal consumption in bars, restaurants and concert halls. But it soon became clear that that would be impossible, says University of Denver professor Sam Kamin, an expert on marijuana law.

The city’s lawyers could get around the state ban on “open and public consumption” of marijuana by defining a “public place” to be somewhere with no restrictions on public access. The ballot initiative already forbade people younger than 21 from entering a cannabis consumption area.

But other state laws and regulations left the city little room to maneuver. Colorado’s liquor licensing board bans marijuana consumption at establishments that hold a liquor license. Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act forbids smoking inside at almost all businesses, restricting marijuana consumption to vaping and edibles.

And under Colorado and Denver law, only licensed dispensaries can sell marijuana products. At the same time, people can’t consume marijuana at a dispensary. That meant that the city could create licenses only for “bring your own cannabis” venues.

Denver began accepting applications for social consumption licenses in July. No business or special event has yet been approved, officials say.

The biggest challenge for would-be pot lounge entrepreneurs is how to make money without selling marijuana products, said Molly Duplechian, a deputy director of policy at the Denver Office of Marijuana Policy. “They have to have something else to have a true business model.”

Emmett Reistroffer of Denver Relief Consulting, the firm that led the city ballot initiative campaign, said the biggest roadblock is the city’s zoning restrictions. Denver won’t issue licenses to businesses or events that are within 1,000 feet of schools, child care centers, alcohol and drug treatment facilities, and city recreation centers and pools — which, Reistroffer said, rules out most of the city.

Even with rules for social consumption on the books, Denver’s problems with public use are far from over. Officials still need to police illegal pot clubs, issue citations to people caught smoking joints in city streets, and monitor marijuana festivals that inspire crowds to light up in city parks.

If the state created rules for social consumption, Duplechian said, that would make Denver’s life easier.

State lawmakers will have to keep returning to the issue because Colorado has essentially legalized the sale and cultivation of marijuana while creating a black market for use, Pabon said. “I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to go away.” 

–Sophie Quinton, Stateline

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7 Responses for “Where Buying Marijuana is Legal, But There’s Nowhere to Smoke It”

  1. Really says:

    Where theres a will theres a way. Have been to LV its not a problem.

  2. Wishful Thinking says:

    I think it’s actually sold by ‘name’ and amount in pubs in Amsterdam… Wonder how that has been working out for around 30 years or so from what I heard… hmmm…

    What the state of Florida has done is far more insane than any other state, they concocted 48 pages of outrageous and many intrusive requirements upon local residents quality of life by requiring not only ‘all cash’.. but surveilling video cameras 24/7 in addition to the usual cameras and alarm – and bright lights from dusk to dawn with no mandatory buffer from homes only a 500 foot buffer from schools… To hell with the residents… and what is compatible , consistent and necessary – and what is really beneficial for their health welfare and safety… What will we do with 490 acres of future pot farms – huh??? Yep 490 more or less eligible potential acres according to county property experts.

    You’ll love this… at no time, workshop or meeting was the total 490 acres disclosed to the commissioners nor was the inadequate local small buffer the recommended C-2 zoning reuires- barely 50 feet instead of 500 from homes This C-2 zoning is being pushed so hard by Flagler County staff’ – (without any limit on how many from the county)… Smells stronger to me than any whiff of pot… And oh yeah – almost forgot with a few exceptions the entire 490 acres is all in Nate McLaughlin’s commission district and he was the swing vote to let it just happen… and this medical stuff isn’t taxable -( if marijuana sale becomes outright legal Florida could tax it to provide so many services the public needs.)

    After all he believes that he’has to do what staff tells him ‘ said that just the other day in front of 5 people
    I think the Dutch have the right idea… but most discerning is why Flagler County staff is pushing the worst zoning to allow sirens and bright lights and all cash on top of single family homes – the same homes the kids who are protected with 500 foot buffers from ‘all cash’ may be kept up all night by bright lights, sirens, etc and maybe thefts…

    When a commissioner says they have to protect property owners who have not asked for such insane zoning while ignoring what is best for their constituents quality of life something is very very very wrong in my personal opinion…What about yours?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hey I have a great idea, you pot smokers could immigrate to the Phillipines or North Korea to smoke. I hear they let you do all the drugs of any kind you want there openly with no repercussions. You guys need to hurry though before they change their policy on immigration.

  4. M12inCHARGE says:

    Tourists with nowhere to burn a spliff. What will they do? WHAT WILL THEY DO?
    Let’s blame this on Trump.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lawmakers smoke the dubbie too and this could be why all of the confusion. What a drag……….

  6. proudyankee says:

    anyone who puffs who doesnt know at least 5 ways to get away with it in public is too stupid to use the pots.

  7. Markingthedays says:

    I think, in the case of hotels, it’s really a matter of smoking and the potential damage. The same reasons they have taken away smoking rooms apply. I don’t think they are anti-pot, just anti smoking anything in their rooms. Just my opinion.

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