by Brian Bahouth – @CRNeditor

Reno – A year from now if not sooner, adults (21+) will be able to purchase marijuana products in a growing number of Nevada retail outlets, but barring a change in state law, it will remain illegal to use marijuana anywhere but in a private residence.  Some 60 million people could visit Nevada in 2018, and many who wish to smoke legally purchased cannabis products may be driven to illegally consume in public or elsewhere, given few legal or fine-free options; but Senate Bill 236, as introduced, would enable local governments in Nevada to license businesses where cannabis is publicly consumed, both for lounges and for special events such as concerts.  On Thursday March 9, state Senator Tick Segerblom, a Democrat from Las Vegas and primary sponsor of SB 236, presented the legislation to the committee he usually chairs, Senate Judiciary.

“Nevada is known for its vices, legalized, and its pleasures,” Senator Segerblom told the committee and packed public gallery.  “That’s why people come to Nevada.  We allow some things that other states don’t allow and some things some of us might not condone, but the reality is, within a couple miles of where we are today, there are things going which um … are not legal in other states, but we license them, we supervise them, but they are part of Nevada’s history and part of current Nevada.”

Segerblom reminded his colleagues that taxes from gambling make up a large portion of the state budget and that regulation of cannabis clubs and events would be a natural continuation of Nevada’s famous legacy of legalizing and profiting from products and services sub rosa in other states.

“The question is, will marijuana become another one of these vices or pleasures, or are we going to put our heads in the sand,” Segerblom said.

“People come to me every day with a crazy idea about marijuana,” said Segerblom with a chuckle.  “They want to have marijuana weddings … they want to have little horse and buggy things driving around … they want to have marijuana resorts, places where they grow it and you can see how it works …  outdoor cafes … marijuana streets, like a little Amsterdam street.  The ideas are off the chart.”

Enabling legislation, not a mandate

Senator Segerblom was clear in pointing out that the bill does not mandate local governments do anything.  The bill would allow municipalities to license a wide variety of venues where cannabis can be publicly consumed, should a local government decide to do so.

The bill language mandates no one under the age of 21 would be permitted in a club or event licensed to allow the open use of marijuana.  The measure also prohibits a cannabis club or event from being located within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or community facility, and cannabis must be consumed in an area, “which is not viewable from any public place.”

The bill would authorize municipalities to collect a fee for the issuance of licenses and special event permits, “which does not exceed the fee charged for other special event permits.”  And while SB 236 as written also grants municipalities wide latitude to regulate and license the time, place and manner of cannabis clubs and events, it prohibits a municipality from arbitrarily limiting the number of licenses or permits issued.

Aaron Ford (D-LV) is Senate Majority Leader and member of the Senate Judiciary committee – image – Brian Bahouth

State Senator Aaron Ford (D-LV) asked how the bill would comport with the public use of alcohol.  The Nevada state Gaming Commission has expressly prohibited the consumption of marijuana on a gaming floor of any kind, so if a bar also has slot machines, for instance, cannabis use would be prohibited.

“But if this was a stand-alone alcohol bar,” Senator Segerblom said.  “This law would allow that bar to allow people to smoke marijuana in the bar.”

Nevada is the only US state to allow any form of indoor tobacco use.  The Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act allows smoking on casino gaming floors where children are prohibited from loitering and in bars that do not serve food, and because of liberal indoor smoking laws, Nevada is uniquely positioned to authorize and regulate the public consumption of cannabis, though fewer are actually smoking cannabis flower.

Edible cannabis products make up roughly half of the legal marijuana market, tinctures to truffles.  The use of discreet vaping devices and other concentrated forms of cannabis comprise as much as a third of the legal market and are perhaps the fastest growing product sector, but cannabis is a social substance, and passing a joint in conviviality is an enduring symbol of marijuana use visitors and natives will want to publicly honor in Nevada.

Jacqueline Holloway is Director of the Clark County Department of Business License and spoke in support of the measure with an amendment to formally establish a pilot project, a change Senator Segerblom said he supports.

“My vision at this point is to consider certainly having a pilot project related to the consumption lounges.  The Board of County Commissioners appointed a green ribbon advisory panel on Tuesday, and we will discuss the issue of consumption and how we can make sure that the tourists are being moved from the strip corridor to safe and modern kinds of environments where they will be able to consume.”

Public comment was offered both for and against the bill, and Chuck Callaway spoke in opposition.  Callaway is Police Director for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department Office of Intergovernmental Services and also serves as vice chair of the governor’s Task Force for the Implementation of Ballot Question 2.

“I believe it’s a little premature to start a process for legalizing and regulating these businesses when the industry itself has not been regulated.  I was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on taxation and regulation, and we’ve had one meeting.  We’re just starting to get the ball rolling.  I know the Department of Taxation is getting the ball rolling.  But the industry itself has not been regulated.  I know that there are a lot of things already in place with the medical marijuana industry, but to now leap forward and start looking at businesses that will allow consumption on their property on the local level, and I realize this bill is enabling, but I think it’s somewhat getting the cart before the horse.”

Mr. Callaway said he understands and agrees with the need to provide safe and legal consumption environments for visitors, but he an 2 other law enforcement representatives spoke in opposition to a provision of the bill that exempts a cannabis friendly business owner from criminal prosecution for:

(a) Possession, delivery or production of marijuana;  (b) Possession or delivery of paraphernalia; (c) Aiding and abetting another in the possession, delivery or production of marijuana; (d) Aiding and abetting another in the possession or delivery of paraphernalia; (e) Any combination of the acts described in paragraphs (a) to (d), inclusive;

“I don’t understand why we want to put something in the language that exempts people who are running a business and potentially being involved illegal activity to be exempt from prosecution under the law,” Callaway said.

If a Nevada citizen lives farther than 25 miles from a marijuana dispensary, they can legally grow up to 6 plants, with a cap of 12 plants per household.

“Under the ballot initiative it says you can transport the proceeds of your home grow,” Callaway said.  “My narcotics detectives tell me that you can get a pound from a pound from a plant, so if I have 6 plants, I have maybe 6 pounds of marijuana that I transport into this business.  So far I haven’t broken any laws, and now I’m handing that marijuana out or potentially selling it illegally, creating a black market inside the hookah lounge to the patrons there, and the owner of that establishment is exempt for prosecution for anything that might occur in his establishment.  I have a great concern over that.”

That SB 236 got a hearing so early in the session means stakeholders will have plenty of opportunity to further vet and craft the bill’s language.  No other US jurisdiction has licensed a cannabis lounge, and many rue the absence of a public consumption provision in states with legal adult use cannabis, but for Senator Segerblom, Nevada is well positioned to lead the nation in some aspects of cannabis regulation.  Segerblom said local governments in Nevada need the ability to provide safe environments for visitors to use legally purchased cannabis products, in the name of public safety, economic opportunity and in keeping with the state’s legacy of groundbreaking regulation of prostitution, gambling and alcohol.

“When those recreational marijuana stores open up, some of those 50 million people are going to go buy some marijuana, so what are they going to do with it?  Are they going to take it back to their hotel room, are they going to walk up and down the street?  We just don’t know, but my thought is, rather than not knowing and making a hazard for the police and everybody else, let’s provide a venue.”