Going 'green' in Sin City: Las Vegas introduces recreational marijuana

A look at a grow facility in Las Vegas, where recreational sales of marijuana will begin July 1, 2017. (KSNV)

When Frank Sinatra sang “Come Fly With Me" on the Vegas strip he probably didn't expect the city would take the meaning to new heights.

The state known for its city of sin is joining the west coast, legalizing recreational use of marijuana and conducting its first sale just in time for the holiday weekend.

In true Vegas fashion, the occasion will be celebrated at the stroke of midnight July 1, with one of the first purchases by notorious former Mayor Oscar Goodman to be captured on camera, and likely seen live on social media.

Any adult over the age of 21 will legally be able to buy up to an ounce of marijuana at a regulated and approved dispensary.

But the “Battle Born” state has seen its fair share of combat to get here.

In late May, less than two weeks before it was to be enacted, a judge halted Nevada’s application process to distributors after alcohol proponents posed a legal challenge claiming exclusive rights to distribution.

The issue was born amid the state taxation department opening distribution applications to any good-standing medical marijuana business.

The group’s argument is that voters approved Question 2 in November that specified marijuana should be regulated like alcohol. Advocates claimed that distribution should also be handled in the same way.

A court order now requires alcohol wholesalers to serve as the middleman between the growers and sellers for at least 18 months.

Since then, it’s been a green rush to the finish line.

Business owners have described the process as a roller coaster of regulations. Commissioners in Clark County – which houses Las Vegas – only approved applications for retail establishments in late June – less than two weeks before sales begin in July. Local dispensaries have since been stocking their shelves with as much product as possible to ensure there’s enough bud to go around.

CEO Paul Schloss with Redwood Cultivation believes the roll-out of legal marijuana in Nevada will be smoother than any other state.

“The stores have been really ramping up their purchases in anticipation for supplying for the next five to six weeks so we're confident that they're going to be well stocked and there won't be an interruption in supply and demand,” he said.

The day will bring extended hours, production levels and increased security measures at dispensaries to deal with what is expected to produce large crowds come opening day.

“With the tourism we have, this will definitely be the largest roll out compared to Washington State, Oregon, or Colorado.”

It’s clear the Silver State is anticipating to strike gold; budget estimates project more than $60 million in tax revenue over the next two years.

Nevada State Senator Tick Segerblom, who pushed for legalization, said the new era is “a game changer for the whole state.”

It’s no surprise that other states in the recreation business are seeing a lot of green.

Since Washington State began selling marijuana to adults over the age of 21 in 2014, pot shops sold more than $1 billion of marijuana, which generated more than $250 million in tax revenue.

In the first half of 2016 alone, Oregon collected more than $25 million in taxes from recreational cannabis sales.

By October, dispensaries reported non-medicinal sales at more than $160 million.

Those numbers are expected to continue to grow with the industry, as California braces for recreational sales to begin January 1, 2018.

By then, the entire western seaboard (including Alaska) will have legalized recreational use of the sticky green stuff.

Others include Colorado (2012), Maine (2016), and Massachussets (2016).

Campaigns for medicinal marijuana have seen success in:

  • Hawaii (2000)
  • Vermont (2004)
  • Montana (2004)
  • New Mexico (2007)
  • Rhode Island (2006)
  • Michigan (2008)
  • New Jersey (2010)
  • Arizona (2010)
  • Washington D.C. (2010)
  • Delaware (2011)
  • Connecticut (2012)
  • New Hampshire (2013)
  • Illinois (2013)
  • Maryland (2014)
  • New York (2014)
  • Minnesota (2014)
  • North Dakota (2016)
  • Arkansas (2016)
  • Ohio (2016)
  • Florida (2016)
  • Pennsyvania (2016)
  • West Virginia (2017)

Back in Nevada, with all the media attention worthy of the iconic flashy tourist strip, former Mayor Goodman is sure to deliver.

The former mob lawyer hasn’t been quiet about his colorful history.

He represented some of the most notorious mobsters, including Tony “The Ant” Pilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal – both of whom had suspected murders portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.”

Goodman had a cameo – playing himself – in the feature film.

His wife was elected mayor after he left office in 2011.

What’s happening in Vegas isn’t exactly staying there.

States with current medical laws in the books are likely to join the 21-and-over party, when the next election cycle runs its course.

There’s plenty of green in fundraising for such ballot initiatives too.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, nearly $30 million was raised for ballot measures in 2014. Ten years prior, that number sat just over $2 million.

Public opinion opposing the general legalization of the plant’s use has been declining since the 80s.

A Pew Research Center study found in 2016, 57 percent of people surveyed were in favor, with 37 percent opposing it.

In 1989, 81 percent opposed legalization and only 16 percent were in favor of it.

One pivotal person who is not: current Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

His view against marijuana use included him stating it was “only slightly less awful” than heroin dependence.

But so far, he has yet to crack down on states, including the District of Columbia, that allow its use.

When asked by Sinclair Broadcast Group about its impact on the farming community, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue advised caution.

“I think you have to be very careful when you talk about medical cannabis,” he said.

“I want to separate that from the growing industry in Kentucky and other places with commercial hemp, but I think we’re seeing some unintended consequences in places that have already passed cannabis laws in other parts of the country. Georgia passed a restricted medical cannabis law, I think we need to proceed very carefully so we don’t see the abuse that could take place with that drug.”

Perdue did not elaborate on the unintended consequences described in states that had passed cannabis laws.

What role the federal government plays in the industry is still largely up in smoke, as Nevada takes its first steps into a new reality for its mass of tourists and residents: recreational sales of marijuana.

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