Downtown Is Slowly Becoming a Green Light District

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By Launce Rake

The voters have spoken. Not once, but three times, for cannabis in Nevada: once to allow medical marijuana, again a few years later to finally allow dispensaries to sell various forms of the drug as medicine and finally, in an affirmation of Nevada’s libertarian soul, to allow adults to use recreational marijuana.

And where better to buy and sell weed than in the urban heart of Las Vegas, a place where galleries, bars and restaurants have already carved out a colony that could be a cousin to hip neighborhoods in Denver or Portland? A lot of people, some of them with visions more Wall Street than Woodstock, are betting that Downtown Las Vegas will soon be a destination for cannabis consumers from around the world.

Of course, people smoke marijuana all over Nevada, but only the largely urban Clark and Washoe counties—two of Nevada’s 17—actually had a majority of voters support recreational use. The rural counties voted against the measure, but the much larger populations of metropolitan Las Vegas and Reno contributed to a healthy 54 to 46 percent margin statewide.

“Parts of Downtown Las Vegas originated as a red-light district of sorts,” he says. “To this day, Downtown carries this certain character that harkens back to a ‘real Las Vegas.'” – Tarek Tabsh, New Amsterdam Naturals

Within the city of Las Vegas, there is already a growing industry in medical marijuana prescriptions and sales. Many of the city’s dispensaries are either Downtown or very close to it, including a gaggle of them in what some are calling the “cannabis corridor” just west of Naked City, the venerable residential district near the Stratosphere.

Tarek Tabsh co-founded New Amsterdam, a dispensary ensconced in the 800 block of South Third Street. The neighborhood still shows signs of the seedy area it recently was, but it is changing, and Tabsh’s dispensary is part of the transformation. “Parts of Downtown Las Vegas originated as a red-light district of sorts,” he says. “To this day, Downtown carries this certain character that harkens back to a ‘real Las Vegas,’ a place that’s distinct from the Strip.” Sometimes that meant prostitutes, hustlers and drug dealers, but there’s clearly a different vibe to the neighborhood today. The store’s goal, Tabsh explains, is to put customers in a different, positive mindset. When you enter New Amsterdam, he says, “You are leaving the familiar. Just being in the waiting room, you’re going out of this world.”

Tabsh thinks the changes in the neighborhood will accelerate when the regulated-marijuana law comes into effect. “Downtown is begging for development and revitalization,” he says. “If Downtown becomes a beacon for cannabis, it will catalyze more development.” Instead of a red-light district, Tabsh envisions a green-light neighborhood. “Las Vegas will become the world’s showroom for cannabis,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a better place to do it than Downtown Las Vegas. It is separated from the family-oriented environment of the Strip … but it caters to the locals and visitors.”

“This is the beginning of a really big movement, not just an economic movement, but the beginning of a different type of industry. … ” – Leslie Bocksor, investor and consultant

Another man bullish on the cannabis-related opportunities for Downtown is Leslie Bocskor, an investor and consultant who works on Fourth Street, a stone’s throw from several dispensaries. He sees a lot of investment and changes coming to the urban core, and cannabis is an ingredient in that evolution.

“It’s going to be a very big positive,” Bocskor says of the regulated marijuana law. Just the presence of more foot traffic in the Downtown area will improve the neighborhood and contribute to ancillary business success and development, he predicts. “There’s going to be hiring and job fairs around this,” Bocskor says. “Over the next three or four years, it’s going to be one of the biggest creators of jobs in the state.”

“We’re going to look back at this moment as a key turning point for the state and the country,” he says. Reduced incarceration and tax revenue from taxing cannabis sales will benefit local and state government and taxpayers, and the dollars going to cannabis will stay in Nevada rather than going to out-of-state or foreign drug cartels. “When you look at all of those things combined, nobody has any idea how substantive the nexus of all those effects would be. This is the beginning of a really big movement, not just an economic movement, but the beginning of a different type of industry,” Bocskor says, “in which values are a more important part of the decision-making process than sheer profitability. This will be showing people there there’s another way to do business.”

Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents much of Downtown, is one of the four council members (out of seven) who have medical-marijuana dispensaries in their districts. He emphasizes that the law is not about “recreational” marijuana, but “regulated” cannabis, as alcohol is regulated.

Zoneil Maharaj | Vegas Seven

Willie Nelson launched his Willie’s Reserve marijuana brand in Nevada with a party at Downtown’s Exile on Main Street boutique.

Coffin, who served more than a quarter-century in the Nevada Senate and Assembly before being elected to the City Council in 2011, says he believes that the new law could be implemented a lot faster on the local level than by state regulators. “If we don’t have too many restrictions on us, we can probably do this a lot quicker,” he says. “The problem is that the Legislature would take quite a lot of time to set that up … It’s better to start just moving forward.”

Downtown and nearby neighborhoods are a natural place for the cannabis industry to develop because most people who live in the area are relatively easygoing about lifestyles and businesses, Coffin says.

Of course, the cannabis industry still faces real challenges, whether in Downtown Las Vegas or rural Clark County. Some local officials are leery: The Henderson City Council, for example, in February imposed a six-month moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana. Unincorporated Clark County, which includes the suburban southwest Valley and the Strip, has cautiously welcomed the medical marijuana industry. “We are in discussions with state officials and are awaiting direction from the state Department of Taxation on how to move forward with recreational marijuana,” said county public information administrator Dan Kulin. “We expect that businesses will have to apply for a business license and land-use approval in order to sell recreational marijuana. We do not have a timeline for this yet.”

Even when the law (or laws) takes practical effect, it will still take time for the city to adapt. But some Downtown denizens are ready. Brian, a neighborhood resident, has spent most of his 50 years living and working in Las Vegas—and, as an adult, smoking pot. He thought about getting a medical marijuana card, but ultimately decided he didn’t want to be on a state-maintained list of users. However, Brian lived in Colorado for a couple of years after it allowed the recreational use of marijuana in 2012 and saw how it impacted that city. He expects the same evolution to come to parts of Downtown Las Vegas—along with the visitors to the dispensaries, bars and restaurants that will follow the change in the law and the march of the cannabis.