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July 18, 2018

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Las Vegas plan to develop, open marijuana lounges on hold after Sessions’ move

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Brennan Linsley / AP

In this Dec. 31, 2013, file photo, partygoers smoke marijuana during a Prohibition-era themed New Year’s Eve party at a bar in Denver, celebrating the start of retail pot sales. Denver is working on becoming the first city in the nation to allow marijuana clubs and public pot use in places like restaurants, yoga studios and art galleries.

Las Vegas’ plan to be the first major U.S. city to develop and open lounges for marijuana consumption is now in limbo in the wake of recent action by federal authorities.

Officials representing the city of Las Vegas and Clark County said Monday that neither entity is immediately proceeding with previously discussed ideas to implement the lounges after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued Department of Justice guidance to effectively remove internal memorandums to protect states’ rights to legalize marijuana.

“The memo caught a lot of people off guard, that’s the tough part,” said Bryan Scott, assistant city attorney for Las Vegas. “There are a lot of prominent citizens involved in this industry and it would be good to have some certainty.”

Scott was one of a small group of city employees to hold a workshop on Dec. 13 with marijuana industry leaders to discuss a proposed city ordinance to open public lounges where adults age 21 and over can consume state legal quantities of pot. The ordinance also permitted lounge owners to obtain separate licenses to sell marijuana paraphernalia, like pipes, T-shirts and bongs, and potentially serve food at the lounges as long it did not contain weed.

But while the ordinance seemed to be gaining momentum with the support of many prominent local pot industry leaders, Sessions’ ruling, which ordered U.S. attorneys in pot-legal states to ignore the Obama-era Cole and Wilkinson memorandums — advising federal attorneys in pot-legal states to narrow their prosecution of the plant to offenses such as distribution of the plant to minors, driving under the influence or use on federal property — clouded the waters for local officials.

Scott said that while the city originally planned to open the lounges in March or April of this year, Sessions’ guidance “sparked more questions than answers.”

Clark County commissioners had tabled September discussions to implement pot lounges to this month. But commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said county officials would now wait “indefinitely” for an opinion from county counsel Mary Anne Miller following Sessions’ ruling.

Sisolak said understanding the views of recently implemented acting U.S. Attorney Dayle Elieson, a Dallas prosecutor who assumed the position last Friday in Nevada, would be among commissioners’ top priorities.

“We’ll be challenged by this, but at this point we really just have to wait and see,” Sisolak said.

Spokeswoman Trisha Young from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said last week the newly appointed prosecutor had no comment.

While state law does not explicitly give permission for marijuana consumption lounges, legislative counsel Brenda Erdoes said in a September 2017 letter to Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom that such lounges would be permitted as long as marijuana is not being used “unlawfully.” That came just four months after Segerblom tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation including language for weed lounges during the 2017 Legislature.

Las Vegas would be the first U.S. city to broadly legalize marijuana consumption lounges if ordinances for the lounges are approved by local authorities. Denver, another city that has come close to legalizing the lounges, has been slowed by ambiguity in Colorado state law and opposition from city officials.

Las Vegas Weekly reporter Cindi Reed contributed to this report.