The Cannabis Conundrum in Casinos

The Cannabis Conundrum in Casinos

  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
November 13, 2016 12:07 AM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

Las Vegas resorts refuse to ban smoking in casinos.

But what about toking?

For now, the answer is easy. No pot, no way, no how.

But it’s obviously a question the American Gaming Association, the Nevada Resort Association and individual resort operators eventually will be compelled to answer as the nation steadily shifts its views — and its votes — on recreational marijuana use.

Well-funded campaigns on both sides of Question 2 at times made it difficult to see the facts for all the political smoke. The Protecting Nevada’s Children PAC, funded almost exclusively by Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, produced abundant advertising meant to equate marijuana proliferation with endangering tots and toddlers. As of Nov. 4, according to the Secretary of State’s office, Adelson donated $3.35 million in a losing cause. He also backed the opposition effort in cannabis-clouded California. On the other side, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol PAC collected $2.9 million in third-party funds to press the public for a yes vote.

In the end, 54 percent of those who cast ballots voted to approve legalization. Now the Nevada Department of Taxation has approximately one year to design and implement new regulations. There are plenty of unsettled details. But on Election Day Nevadans clearly favored legalizing pot for recreational use by adults.

It’s hard to imagine the casino industry taking a genuinely hard-line stance against it. In reality, it’s not exactly been difficult to find concertgoers and nightclub denizens lighting up — often with resort security and Metro police officers close by.

Basing its argument on the federal classification of marijuana as a Class 1 dangerous drug, a designation that places it in the company of cocaine and heroin, the Nevada Resort Association has positioned itself in the prohibitionist camp. It’s a safe bet. And it makes some sense given the privileged status of Nevada’s gaming licensees.

But it won’t last. It can’t.

Let’s set aside the absurdity and hypocrisy people who run casinos getting all Calvinist about someone else’s idea of a good time. Given the long history of condoned drug use in the upper echelon of the casino business, the public just-say-no routine seems downright corny. Practical, but corny.

According to a recent article in Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, casino and convention officials are downplaying the potential importance of pot legalization in Nevada to the collective bottom line. Officially, it appears marijuana tourism is having an impact in other states, but for some reason Nevada won’t feel the buzz.

That seems, shall we say, counterintuitive. It’s also downright backward in a business that rakes in billions focusing on hedonistic excesses and, at least on the surface, not being too judgmental.

The lack of a public discussion on this topic by the industry shows it’s either hopelessly hypocritical (always a possibility), frightened of federal intervention (an authentic concern), or perhaps afraid of offending a couple of its major players (no question about it.)

This is a business that won’t even ban cigarette smoking despite the medical risks inherent in secondhand smoke because it might irritate good players. Never mind the that rest of the nation and much of the world have already taken that enlightened approach on public tobacco consumption. In Nevada casinos, it’s still the Mad Men era.

For its part, the Gaming Control Board has toed the standard law enforcement line. If it’s federally illegal, it’s wrong to endorse it.

Sounds logical, right? Sure, until you remember sports bookmaking is legal in Nevada and illegal by federal statute throughout the rest of the United States. In other states, bookmaking is considered so bad for society that you can go to jail for practicing it.

Nevada is not alone in approving recreational pot use. Last Tuesday, Maine, Massachusetts, and California also endorsed it. It failed in Arizona.

But Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida all voted to approve medicinal marijuana use. And at the risk of offending the hand-wringers in the Dr. Pot camp, legally speaking medicinal marijuana is definitely a gateway drug to recreational marijuana.

Nevada legalized marijuana in 2000, but didn’t get around to approving the structure of its growth, production and dispensing until 2013. The control board has erred on the side of caution.

A widely circulated memo May 6, 2014 from control board Member Terry Johnson made it clear the regulators were concerned about potential problems created by casino licensees becoming medical marijuana licensees as well.

“Accordingly,” Johnson wrote, “unless the federal law is changed, the Board does not believe investment or any other involvement in a marijuana facility or establishment by a person who has received a gaming approval or has applied for a gaming approval is consistent with the effective regulation of gaming. Further, the Board believes that any such investment or involvement by gaming licensees or applicants would tend to reflect discredit upon gaming in the State of Nevada.”

Discredit or not, medical marijuana is about to be expanded into recreational marijuana in the Silver State. About the time someone lights a reefer on the casino floor next to a player smoking a more conventional cigarette, the cloud is bound to get more controversial.

Fortunately there’s plenty of time to ruminate.

Nevada’s new law doesn’t take effect for several weeks.

John L. Smith is longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.