Las Vegas’s Run As Cannabis Capital Was Short

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Marijuana legalization has been good for business, but fewer businesses have been better served by legal weed than the convention-industrial complex.

The appeal to shell out thousands of dollars for a flight, hotel room and the opportunity to listen to a day’s worth of panels in a hotel ballroom has proven widespread. There are marijuana business conferences in far-flung locales like Hawaii and Germany, and in relatively weed-unfriendly places including New York City. This is big business—but nowhere would it be bigger than in Las Vegas.

Would, were it not for the always-upstanding casino industry.

Vegas’s appeal on the convention circuit is obvious.

It’s easy to fly into, there are literally thousands of hotel rooms available on any given night and the distractions once “business” wraps up for the day are legion. Who wouldn’t want to travel to a wholly contrived carnival atmosphere in the middle of the desert to talk about medical equipment or optimizing sales?! Break out the khakis and loafers, boys; it’s time for your Generic Company Name to party!

One of the very biggest marijuana-related conventions has been in Las Vegas since 2012. This year’s MJ Biz Conference was expected to draw the biggest crowd yet. Some 14,000 people were expected at the Rio All Suite Casino and Hotel, which now has to fear for its lifeblood—its gaming license—if the crowd is not turned away.

Nevada’s experiment with marijuana legalization has been somewhat rocky.

The state’s dispensaries predictably ran out of weed not long after they opened for business on July 1 because of a flaw in the distribution system that gives a near-monopoly to liquor companies.

And now, the state gaming commission, which giveth and taketh away the right to host slot machines, blackjack tables and other methods of extracting massive amounts of money from people happy to lose it, is saying that entities with a gaming license must be “discouraged” from associating with cannabis. In any way whatsoever.

“The marijuana industry and the gaming industries are two different industries and the two will not meet,” commission chairman Tony Alamo said during the commission’s monthly meeting on Aug. 24. “If licensees take that and move backwards from there, I think they’re going to find themselves in the right place.”

Marijuana use has already been forbidden in hotels. In Nevada, it’s hard to find a grocery store that doesn’t have a few slot machines by the checkout, let alone a hotel that decided, nah, having a casino attached is a bad idea.

Over the past few months, there have been hints that Sin City would prefer not to allow this particular sin. The World of Cannabis Convention announced July 3 that it would not return to Las Vegas. The month before, Isaac Dietrich, the CEO of marijuana social-media platform and news outlet MassRoots, was kicked out of a Wynn Las Vegas resort, supposedly because of his involvement in the marijuana industry.

But the order to disassociate with cannabis entirely is a new prohibition entirely, and one that uniquely screws marijuana conventions. You can’t have a convention without a hotel.

As Leafly noted, there are at least five marijuana-themed conferences slated to come to Las Vegas between now and November. The CEO of one convention was confident that the show would be allowed to go on, since the focus was “completely medical” and its attendees will be “encouraged not to smoke or ingest the plant during the show.”

Right. Marijuana users have always respected entreaties not to use marijuana. Good luck with that one.

The key, gaming commission chair Tony Alamo said, is whether or not the casinos somehow facilitate or encourage the violation of federal law. Because gambling outfits, you see, are very concerned about obeying the law at all times.

“We’re not here to micromanage the gaming business,” Alamo said, according to Leafly. “At the end of the day, whatever they do, they have to set out to not allow the breaking of federal law within their sidewalks.”

For now, MJ Business Daily, which hosts the MJ Biz conference, maintains that it will be able to go forward with its convention without issue, since the focus is investing, commerce—and there are no “activated” marijuana products “for sale” on the convention floor. That may be true, but there will absolutely be loads of marijuana. 

We’re clearly headed toward some kind of reckoning soon, and it remains to be seen whether the gaming commission is serious about revoking a hotel’s casino license over weed—and whether a hotel will even dare test the theory.

Either way, it appears clear that Vegas’s gaming interests are doing what they can to squeeze weed out of town.

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