Article Thumbnail

Weed Is the One Vice That Sin City Hates

Even though local laws prevent states from advertising their marijuana offerings to potential visitors from states without recreational marijuana policies, more and more people are flocking to them to enjoy a vacation with all the protections (and consumer options) adult-use weed laws allow. That is, while nascent, weed tourism is becoming a thing. In particular, people working in the industry and search engine analytics both report increased interest in marijuana-friendly activities, lodging and transportation in Colorado, Washington and California (states, of course, where recreational weed is legal).

However, there is one state — well, one city rather — that refuses to let weed tourism alter its well-oiled hospitality machine: Las Vegas. Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, tobacco, sex work and trans-fat-laden buffets, weed is the one sin that Sin City won’t allow (even though it’s probably the least wicked of them all). Cannabis became legal for adults in Nevada in 2017, a full year before a similar recreational law became effective in California, but Vegas specifically has yet to leave its 420-unfriendly disposition behind. That’s not say people aren’t buying legal weed in Las Vegas. In fact, cannabis sales there have averaged a million dollars a day, outpacing other cities; the problem is there really isn’t anywhere for tourists to smoke it.

Worse yet, the city has a long reputation of arresting people for trace amounts of weed. Even Paris Hilton’s arrest for cocaine possession in Vegas in 2010 was the result of officers first seeing a small amount of marijuana smoke emanate from her Escalade. “They find you with a nug and they got you locked up for six months,” my own stoner father tells me. But now that tourists of age can purchase weed on the Strip, as well as enjoy a 24-hour dispensary — the aptly named Oasis — Sin City’s current prohibitionist weed policies at its hotels and major attractions are beginning to make less and less sense.

Basically, weed can only be legally consumed in a private residence or a residence in which the owner gives you explicit permission, which, right now, none of the hotels on the Strip will do — even The Cosmopolitan, which is branded as the strip’s most youthful, sexy and glamorous hotel. “Possession and consumption of marijuana remains illegal under U.S. federal law. As such, guests aren’t permitted to possess or consume marijuana in any form for medicinal or recreational use at The Cosmopolitan,” its communications manager writes to me via a brief, yet definitely conclusive email.

In other words, The Cosmopolitan, like many others, are waiting for the federal government to make the first move.

For some more insight into the weed tourism business overall and why the Vegas’ biggest players seem so reluctant to add weed to their menu of sinful options, I talked to Mike Eymer, the founder and CEO of Colorado Cannabis Tours. Eymer led his company’s first tour in Colorado by himself in a stretch Chrysler. Focusing on the horticulture of marijuana, Emyer brought a whopping four tourists to check out industrial grows on a tour that was among the first of its kind back in 2014. A green thumb himself, he assumed the grow-tour would be the heart and soul of his business, but he quickly realized that Colorado tourists preferred more social cannabis experiences — a la party buses and group activities, where they could meet new weed enthusiast friends.

Today, his Colorado tours regularly fill 34-seat Tiffany Limo buses, often two at a time, and get tourists more lifted than the Rocky Mountains. He offers similar services in Washington and California as well as in Boston and Washington D.C. In all, he says, “Our company has touched between 150,000 and 200,000 people since our company’s launch in 2014.”

The situation in Vegas seems different than in cities such as L.A., Oakland and Seattle, where the cultures were already pretty progressive about cannabis use. Have the major hotels and nightclubs there become any more flexible about weed?
I can tell you a story about being at a Mandalay Bay pool party last year. This was while we were still running our Puff, Pass and Paint program in Vegas, a cannabis-inclusive art class we launched in Denver in 2014 and currently have going in a few different cities. I was there with my business partner Heidi Keyes and the instructor who taught the class in Vegas. We’d been invited as guests because they wanted to talk to us about what we were doing and how we could help drive tourism to their establishment.

We were out by the pool, and soon enough, security stops this instructor for having a vape pen. He explains to them that it’s a CBD vape pen and how it isn’t illegal and that it doesn’t get you high like marijuana. But they don’t give him two seconds. They did the whole Vegas thing where they muscled him out — they grabbed him, escorted him off the property and banned him from the Mandalay Bay for a year because of the CBD pen.

Is this why you don’t offer the same range of services in Vegas — e.g., 420-friendly party buses, tours and even airport pick-up — that you do in other cities?
Honestly, most of our Vegas offerings aren’t active right now. I’d say our main hubs right now are Denver, San Francisco and L.A. Vegas should be on that list. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be there. We anticipated it would be and went there early, even before we went to California. But you know, Vegas plays by its own rules. This story isn’t as much about what’s happening in Vegas as much as it is about what’s not happening. The City of Las Vegas started issuing people cease-and-desist orders and wrote a letter to most of the companies providing cannabis services there, besides the dispensaries, and told them to shut down. We left before we received one.

The only real part of our business in Vegas at the moment is our lodging options, all of which are condos. You can have an Airbnb within the City of Las Vegas, but not in unincorporated Clark County. You can set your own policy in the Airbnbs, and that’s where a 420-friendly accommodation can be worked out. We normally work toward offering hotels, but the condos are the best way to keep our business going while we’re trying to get that.

Colorado was easier for us. It was the dawn of legalization when we started talking to these hotels. We started with bed and breakfasts, and then, within the first six or seven months, we added large, nationally known hotels. They adjusted to the legislative change quickly and started to form policies with us. The big guys in Vegas will eventually adjust, but we aren’t as concerned about the hotels there as we are about getting our tourism activities back online. We get far more interest for activities than we do for hotels. Overall, Vegas is a teeny, tiny market because its laws don’t allow for social consumption.

Why isn’t Las Vegas at the forefront of social consumption laws?
The problem with Vegas is that it’s built on hospitality, whereas other jurisdictions are just happy to take the additional tourist dollars. You imagine Vegas would be happy to take those, too, but it’s a work in progress. There’s also more work to get tours online in Vegas than in other cities. We have to deal with the Public Utility Commission, which is stricter because of how big the limousine business is there.

There are good people out there, including senators, who want to work with us to make this happen though. In the next couple months, we’ll be bringing over a specialized limousine party bus that’s been designed specifically for cannabis tours — the first of its kind, in fact — to show regulators. It’s basically to say, “This is what we’re recommending as regulations for these vehicles moving forward. Take a look, and let’s start talking about how we incorporate this into the law.”

Do you think then that social consumption laws will change in Vegas quickly?
Quickly? No. Vegas is moving very slowly, and a lot of things on the social consumption front have been moving slowly all over. We don’t really have clarity about social consumption here in Denver, even five years later. We’re attempting to establish that clarity now through a lawsuit we’re taking against the City of Denver. We hope that that lawsuit will determine our social consumption policy. Social consumption is the hottest button in cannabis right now. We’re at the tip of the iceberg because nobody has passed true social consumption laws yet. For us, the future is basically helping to shape what those regulations look like.

We’re in the midst of talking to some of our competitors to form a larger company and use that funding to shape the laws as they need to be shaped, specifically in markets like Vegas. That should be exciting. Dealing with these legislative issues has brought us a lot closer to our competing companies. Our adversary is the same adversary cannabis has always had — the government. They’re not our friend. We got legalization through constitutional amendments brought by the people. But once the government gets their hands on it, they fuck it up.