Cannabis Lounges Coming to Nevada—What Does This Mean for Social Equity?

    On June 4, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signed Assembly Bill 341, a bill allowing for cannabis consumption lounges throughout the state, into law.

    The law legalizes two kinds of cannabis consumption spaces: “retail cannabis lounges” run by dispensaries and “independent cannabis consumption lounges” run by any other type of business. In both spaces, single-use or ready-to-consume cannabis products are permitted for use by anyone 21 years and older.

    Though this law has been championed to boost Las Vegas tourism, hotels won’t be considered for stand-alone consumption lounges due to federal law, and this is unlikely to change for now. (The Las Vegas Sun reports that the Nevada Gaming Control Board forbade gaming licensees from participating in the cannabis industry starting in 2018.) However, tourists of course aren’t the only ones who could benefit.

    “It’s important to give people who may feel wary or tentative a cannabis space where they can consume intentionally.”

    “Consumption lounges are important because they help protect people from prejudicial law enforcement or being fined or sanctioned in a way that causes real harm, that perpetuates the War on Drugs,” cannabis and social equity advocate Noel Gordon told Filter. Gordon lives in Las Vegas, in addition to serving as director of development outside of the state for Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization.

    JamalEdeen Barghouti, an advocate based in Reno, stressed the value of having public consumption spaces for new cannabis users. “It’s important to give people who may feel wary or tentative about approaching a cannabis space where they can consume intentionally,” they told Filter. In addition to serving on the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee of the National Cannabis Industry Association, Barghouti works as director of Blackbird, a software and operations company servicing the cannabis industry.

    Historically, cannabis has been purchased in an underground market. It’s been consumed in a variety of social and solitary spaces, which have all been criminalized, unless you’re a medical marijuana patient. Many of us newcomers relied on those around us for guidance on consumption methods and practices. (My first bowl was made out of aluminum foil, which is a health hazard.) With the emerging legal market, more and more people are coming into contact with cannabis in legal ways, complete with brochures curated and distributed by dispensaries and other brands. There is a real opportunity to promote harm reduction within the industry.

    Gordon has mixed feelings about how the lounges will be implemented. “I’m not all that optimistic we will still deliver on the social equity pieces,” he explained. “We still live in a prohibition lite version of legalization here in Nevada whereby you can purchase and consume cannabis in your home, but short of that, if you were to consume it on the sidewalk, in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, you will still be subject to some kind of criminal penalty or sanction.”

    State law only permits legally purchased cannabis to be consumed on private property “as long as the property owner has not prohibited it.” (Renters can easily be out of luck.) Though cannabis tourism can add yet another attraction to the Strip, this technicality prevents tourists from legally consuming cannabis. It also leaves street-based drug users just as vulnerable.

    Plus, racial disparity among cannabis businesses casts severe doubt on any presumptions that the new law will foster economic diversity. In a 2019 lawsuit, the Nevada Department of Taxation (Marijuana Enforcement Division) was accused of corrupt and unfair distribution of cannabis business licenses. As a result, some licenses were adjusted, according to the Nevada Independent, but this hasn’t closed the racial gap of business ownership. Gordon noted that only one Nevada cannabis businessthe Las Vegas-based Nevada Wellness Center owned by former NFL player Frank Dawkinsis Black-owned. He added that unlike states such as New Jersey and New York, Nevada didn’t prioritize social equity provisions in its legalization laws.

    “I believe Nevada is wholly unaware of the level of work that goes into creating [social equity] programs.”

    In response to overwhelming inequity, A341 provides reduced license application fees by up to 75 percent for qualifying social equity applicants—that’s anyone “who has been adversely affected by provisions of previous laws which criminalized activity relating to cannabis, including, without limitation, adverse effects on an owner, officer or board member of the applicant or on the geographic area in which the applicant will operate” according to the legislation. Though the discount is notable, the price to apply for a license can reach up to $30,000; $7,500 remains a heavy price tag for a marginalized person impacted in some way by the drug war.

    Barghouti, who has worked on social equity programs in Oakland, California and Massachusetts, expressed mixed feelings. “It’s exciting that Nevada is bringing social equity,” they explained. “A lot of established markets are starting to do the same [in Colorado and Oregon]. I also believe Nevada is wholly unaware of the level of work that goes into creating those programs and I’m nervous there isn’t going to be enough resources needed.”

    Though it wasn’t passed, an additional bill under consideration would’ve allowed cannabis consumption lounge “micro licenses” for small business owners, which wouldn’t have required nearly as much investment. “One of the types of micro-licensed businesses could be a cannabis event planner, whereby someone could apply for a license and work with dispensaries to consume products at an event,” Gordon elaborated.

    Alaska and Colorado have passed similar measures. Additionally, New York’s new legalization policy permits and regulates on-site consumption in cannabis facilities.

    Whether the consumption lounges will actually live up to their ideals, Nevadans and their visitors will have to wait until next year before setting foot in one, even though the law goes into effect on October 1. The Cannabis Compliance Board is now tasked with distributing licenses for existing dispensaries and independent businesses.

    “The Cannabis Compliance Board is continuing to review the bill and its requirements in establishing consumption lounge licenses in Nevada,” Tiana Bohner, public information officer of the Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board, told Filter. “The Board will aim to promulgate regulations and begin issuing licenses by early 2022.”



    Correction, June 22: This article was edited to reflect that the Nevada Department of Taxation was the subject of the 2019 lawsuit, not the Cannabis Compliance Board as previously stated. We apologize for this error.

    Photograph by Schwingi via Pixabay

    • Adryan is a journalist and writer covering drugs and policing. Their reporting has appeared in publications including Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, Vice and Complex. They live in New Jersey.

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