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Las Vegas approves cannabis lounges, but idea of ‘New Amsterdam’ in jeopardy

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On Wednesday, Las Vegas City Council unanimously approved new regulations to officially allow cannabis consumption lounges within city limits.

These lounges have long been discussed as a necessary step in allowing legal cannabis use, especially for tourists, since recreational marijuana was legalized in Nevada in 2017. Clark County approved its own regulations in December and could have lounges opening up by April or May.

But the City of Las Vegas vote took years to come and was delayed after various stakeholders voiced concern on what they considered stringent rules added in by the city. Cannabis groups also argued the rules could set up the social equity license holders for failure.

“I'm extremely concerned about 1000 foot distance separation,” said Paul Murad, president of Metroplex Realty. “It’s risking to interfere with this opportunity to create a destination, a tourist destination of New Amsterdam, if you will. And we had this chance, and it may slip out of our hands.”

Murad has been an outspoken advocate for the cannabis lounges as he has property stakes in the Arts District where he and many others were hoping to open up shop. They’ve been pushing for a “New Amsterdam,” similar to the European city where patrons can smoke cannabis in coffee shops in close proximity to each other.

The City of Las Vegas, after delaying the vote and holding several meetings with stakeholders leading up to the March 1 council meeting, made some changes to their original bill draft. Neighbors of a lounge no longer need to provide approval. Instead, there will be a one year review period. Outdoor consumption and edible use will also be allowed through a waiver process approved by city council on a case-by-case basis.

Additionally, licensing fees for social equity applicants dropped from an initial cost of $10,000 all the way down to $1500. The move was lauded by many, but the city’s decision to keep a 1,000 foot separation requirement between lounges was sharply criticized. In effect, it ends any hope of multiple consumption lounges within close distance.

But Jim Lewis, deputy city attorney, stressed that the separation requirement can be eliminated through waivers for Special Use Permits. With such a waiver, Arts District can still theoretically play host to multiple lounges within walking distance.

“My largest concern is the waiver,” said A’Esha Goins, founder of Cannabis Equity and Inclusion Community (CEIC). “Because typically when there are waivers that are made available, it goes to the person who is the elite. Right? The person with the most money and the most influence and are concerned about how that's going to show up for those impacted persons.”

Many of the cannabis groups and stakeholders expressed lingering concern for the social equity license holders after the city council meeting.

In November, the Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board issued 40 prospective licenses to open up cannabis lounges in four Nevada jurisdictions across the state. 10 of those were set aside for social equity applicants, those who have been adversely impacted by previous cannabis laws and policies. Seven of those 10 social equity applicants are planning to open their lounges in the City of Las Vegas limits. Overall, 15 of the 40 prospective licenses are designated for Las Vegas.

“What I'm gonna do is reach out to the council persons, and I'm going to ask them to have special consideration for those social equity licensees,” Goins said. “So it's not another obstacle that they have to overcome.”

Goins and Murad were both grateful that the licensing fees were lowered for the social equity applicants, but Goins still worried about the financial hurdles. She said many of these license holders aren’t wealthy and any cost can become a burden.

Chandler Cooks is one of those social equity prospective license holders. He wants to open his cannabis lounge, Moulin Noir, downtown for the financial benefits the location could provide.

“Downtown would be the perfect location, but it's expensive,” Cooks said. “Considering I'm not rich and we're not coming with a lot of money, we have to be innovative in where we go. So we're considering other places. Possibly the Historic Westside.”

Cooks said cannabis is high revenue, but not high profit. It’s still a Schedule 1 drug on the federal level and securing loans and other finances are difficult, if not impossible.

But not everyone in downtown Las Vegas is welcoming to the idea of opening up cannabis lounges. Councilwoman Olivia Diaz said as much during the meeting.

Sarah Collins is the CFO of Main Street Peddlers Antique Mall in the Arts District. She expressed concern that cannabis lounges would price out the arts and artists of the Arts District.

“My fear with cannabis lounges is that they will displace us,” Collins said. “They are willing to pay much more for rent than we are capable of, and that we will lose our leases.”

Many Arts District tenants have told News 3 they are receiving emails and phone calls from possible lounge owners expressing interest in opening a location within their buildings or next door. Now with the regulations officially approved, movement could come quickly.

But until the waiver process for a Special Use Permit is better understood, it’s difficult for a lounge owner to commit to a location and sign a lease without knowing whether or not the city will allow it at that specific spot.

“What are they supposed to do? Sign a lease and pray it’s granted,” one business owner on Main Street said.

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It’s clear that obstacles remain, especially for social equity applicants. Regardless, the lounges are finally coming, and a city spokesperson said a realistic timeline is having them open by the end of this year.

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