The Haymaker: Betting Against the House in Las Vegas

Editor’s note: ‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s weekly column on cannabis politics and culture.

Legal adult-use cannabis is coming to Las Vegas on Saturday, and some of the world’s most famous casinos are freaking out.

How do I know this? Consider the case of MassRoots CEO Isaac Dietrich.

Saturday is Opening Day, and casinos are celebrating by giving cannabis the bum’s rush.

Dietrich, who runs a social media company, found himself booted and banned from the Wynn Casino and Hotel earlier this month. The reason? Dietrich applied for the Wynn’s Red Card reward program. During a background check, casino staffers discovered that MassRoots was partly supported by cannabis industry advertising. Boom! Out went Dietrich, keister to concrete, metaphorically speaking.

Funny; I seem to recall the Rio Hotel and Casino, another Strip landmark, having no problem accepting the cash infusion provided by the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo—the cannabis industry’s biggest annual gathering—last November. That same month, The Palms hosted the World of Cannabis Summit. The ArcView Investor Network has held annual forums in years past at the Hilton Lake Las Vegas and the M Resort. Clearly, when it comes to cannabis, casino managers are confused about where the bright lines of legality and good hospitality lie.

They also have no idea what’s about to hit them—in good ways and bad.

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The Party Starts Saturday, 12:01 a.m.

At least 37 Las Vegas-area medical marijuana dispensaries are poised to open their doors to all adults 21 and older on Saturday, July 1, at 12:01am. Dispensaries near the Strip, like Oasis and The Reef, are throwing massive midnight bashes, complete with snow cones, body paint, and live DJs. State Sen. Tick Segerblom, Nevada’s legalization lion, plans to throw down cash on a gram of his own namesake strain, Segerblom Haze.  Frankly, I’m disappointed that nobody’s doing one of those foam parties.

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And how are the casinos celebrating? By giving cannabis the bum’s rush.

To be fair, it’s still against state law to consume cannabis in a public space. Which means it’s forbidden to imbibe in bars, casinos, and hotels.

Without legal cannabis lounges, the state is ‘dumping the responsibility onto the resort corridor.’

Andy Abboud, VP, Las Vegas Sands Corporation

And some gaming companies have worked with legislators like Segerblom to forward a bill that would allow local municipalities to license cannabis lounges. Not allowing such legal consumption spaces would “dump the responsibility onto the resort corridor,” Las Vegas Sands Corporation Senior Vice President Andy Abboud told the Associated Press earlier this year.

That bill, SB 236, stalled and failed last month when rural lawmakers like Sen. Don Gustavson (R-VegasIsNotMyProblem) balked.

So, given the state-illegality of public consumption, I suspect a number of casinos will expel anybody they spot sipping on a vape pen in the parking garage—if only to send a message. In recent days I’ve heard from a number of Vegas poker pros about the pervasiveness of cannabis in the poker scene—and the real risk of getting caught and expelled from the tournament, Wynn style.

UnknownWelcome, scientists!

I’ve seen this sort of paranoia in action. Last year I gave a keynote at the Emerald Scientific Conference, an annual Las Vegas gathering of cannabis lab nerds. Management at the Monte Carlo, where the event was held, posted a prominent “drug-free environment” sign at the conference entrance, and had a guard give the hairy eyeball to all the chemists and lab techs as they passed by clutching cappuccinos. This at a hotel that featured a full cocktail bar at the check-in desk.

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Steering Rookies to Edibles

Allow me a prediction based on the law of unintended consequences. With casino and hotel security playing Inspector Javert, tourists will load up on cannabis edibles instead of vape pens and well-cured leaf. Edibles, after all, are almost impossible to spot or smell. Vegas being Vegas, some visitors will overindulge. An hour later they’ll find themselves back at the hotel and casino suffering what medical professionals euphemistically call “some discomfort.”

Maureen Dowd suffered her infamous bad candy bar trip in a small hotel in Denver. Imagine that scenario playing out in the 7,000 rooms of The Venetian and The Palazzo.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Those nasty reactions usually don’t happen with vaped or smoked cannabis. Inhaled cannabinoids hit the brain and body almost immediately, so it’s a self-titrating experience. In other words, when you’ve had enough, you know it and you stop. Edibles don’t work like that.

When did Carrot Top get all swole?

Poorly conceived casino policies won’t stop Nevada visitors from shopping at cannabis stores. Mild taboos and forbidden fruit? That’s what people come to Las Vegas to enjoy.

Starting Saturday legal marijuana will be an integral part of the Vegas experience, a must-do every bit as alluring as the slots, the blackjack table, the cocktails, and Celine Dion at Caesars. Or Britney at Planet Hollywood. Or Carrot Top at the Luxor.

And consider this: Las Vegas hosts 3.5 million visitors every month. That’s more than half the population of Colorado. Colorado gets a lot of tourists, too. But most of them aren’t coming to break the boundaries and get a little naughty. To put it bluntly: Marijuana sales in Las Vegas are going to be spectacular.

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No Easy Villain

Movies have trained us to think of the Las Vegas casinos as the bad guys. Who doesn’t want to bust the chops of the fictional Bellagio owner Andy Garcia plays in Ocean’s 11? The pompous jerk.

Of course it's funny, it's a GIF. Of course it’s funny, it’s a GIF.

But in this case it’s not so simple. Some casinos, like the Wynn, are overreacting and treating their law-abiding guests as criminals. Others like the Sands Corporation, which owns The Venetian and The Palazzo, are working with legislators to pass commonsense and necessary consumption regulations. Until those regs pass, though, casinos must enforce state law or risk running afoul of the Nevada Gaming Commission—the ultimate cardinal sin on the Strip.

Nobody wishes a bad cannabis experience on a consumer. But those bad edibles trips—and they will happen—may move enough votes to pass Tick Segerblom’s bill.

Best case scenario? This time next year, the Bellagio cuts the ribbon on its luxe new cannabis garden, where guests can enjoy their legal products obtained offsite. Caesars Palace opens a high-end glass boutique next to the Colosseum, Celine Dion’s home away from home. The Beach at Mandalay Bay hosts Sativa Saturdays, with cannabis-friendly cabanas available by the hour. At Chill, Aria’s coolly-lit indoor lounge, they don’t offer bottle service—they offer Volcano service.

And at The Luxor, there’s a discreet ticket-holders lounge within the Atrium Showroom. Pro tip: Pick up a pre-roll before the Carrot Top show.

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