NEW HIGHS IN VEGAS

NEW HIGHS IN VEGAS

Going into 1931, Las Vegas – population 5,000 - was a sleepy little ‘one-horse’ town on the arid floor of the Mojave Desert. Who’d a thunk what the next few decades might bring?

Two things happened that year that would forever transform the place. First, construction began on the nearby Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam: This immediately led to an influx of some 20,000 predominantly male workers who had money to spend and desperately needed places to spend it.

Now, it was perhaps a happy coincidence (hmmm?) but the very same year saw the State of Nevada hastily pass a new gaming bill that legalized casino gambling thereby giving the dam-builders the wallet emptying combination of girls and gambling.

Word of the new boom town spread quickly and it didn’t take long for ‘family entrepreneurs’ Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to smell opportunity in the desert. Booze, gambling and girls was right up their alley and, using Mormon-owned banks for money laundering purposes, the two soon financed the building of the legendary Flamingo. ‘Sin City’ was on its way!

Today in excess of 40 million people visit Vegas every year. The city is home 150 plus casinos, and has almost half of the 20 largest hotels in the world. With over 150,000 guestrooms the city hosts an average of 22,000 conventions a year. Surprisingly perhaps, gaming accounts for only about 45 percent of Vegas’s casino revenues, the rest coming from rooms, food and beverages - shopping is of course another major revenue source. With 47.4 million passengers in 2016, McCarran Airport was the seventh busiest air destination in North America – surpassing YYZ’s 44.3 million and more than doubling YVR’s 22.3 million.

Pretty amazing for a location that has an average annual rainfall of four inches!

Vegas was back in the news last week when, 86 years after that famous gaming bill, Nevada became the fifth US state after Colorado, Alaska, Washington and Oregon to approve the sale of recreational marijuana.

As the intriguingly named Nevada State Senator Tick Segerblom, (often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Weed’) put it - perhaps after sampling the goods - “Everything we know shows that millennials are very pro-marijuana and that’s the new marketing push. This is a game changer for Las Vegas and tourism here as far as I’m concerned … Amsterdam on steroids.”

But don’t expect Vegas to be transformed into some kind of Casablanca-like brightly lit super-souk. The new ‘weeding rules’ are really pretty strict. In fact they seem to have been written in such a way that they’re just begging to be broken. For starters there will be no using the stuff on the Strip or in casinos. By the letter of the new law marijuana may only be consumed in private homes – which does beg the question as to where precisely tourists are supposed to light up or chew their gummies? Should they get caught doing it in public the fine has been set at a tidy $600!

One possible answer to the question comes from one Steve D’Angelo, a longtime marijuana activist. In a paper entitled: "Opportunity or Peril: The Economic Potential of Cannabis Tourism in Las Vegas," he advocates for self-contained cannabis-themed resorts, featuring hotel rooms with hemp sheets, in-room vaporizers and cafés serving salads with organic hemp-seed dressing. Perhaps the big hotel operators could branch out with a ‘W-eed’, a ‘Marriotjuana” or a ‘Highatt Regency’?

The existing situation effectively forces visitors to flaunt the law by furtively ingesting cannabis in their hotel rooms, casino bathrooms, public walkways, shows, and nightclubs. Or as D’Angelo puts it in his report, "Wafting smoke and seeping aromas will confront and disturb families and children along with the existing adult clientele.”

But let’s be honest here - like everything else in Las Vegas this is all about revenue generation. Last year the neighboring State of Colorado earned in excess of $200 million. In Nevada recreational weed sales will be taxed at 10 percent and the official estimate is for some $60 million in year-one tax revenues, although this is thought by many to be a grossly understated figure. There is also the indirect boost to the economy from the creation of thousands of ancillary jobs in retail stores – there are lots of newly created openings for ‘budtenders’.

Certainly if the first few days of sales are anything to go by the face of tourism in Vegas may be a headed for new heights. One enterprising operator has already started selling tickets for a ‘Cannabus Tour’ that takes riders to a selection of retail outlets where they’re allowed to go straight to the front of the line. Oh yes and as every purchase is cash only, ATM operators can expect a windfall on their already high withdrawal fees which range from $5 to $10. Kaching, kaching!

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority might want to consider updating the old faithful, “What Happens in Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas” slogan. Perhaps “It’s High Time You Visited Vegas” or, “Weed Love To See You in Vegas” – Let’s hear your suggestions.

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