LAS VEGAS -- Like much of Nevada, the casino industry is grappling with issues surrounding medical marijuana.
So much so that gaming companies and regulators have had little to say publicly about doctor-prescribed pot.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Nevada since 2000, but it took state lawmakers 14 years to allow dispensaries to operate. Now, with a state law in place calling for up to 66 potential medical marijuana outlets throughout Nevada, the issue is finding its way into gaming headquarters.
No one has suggested Nevada casinos offer medical marijuana dispensaries as part of their retail amenities. Online gaming has fueled heated debate. Imagine the discussions around this issue?
The Nevada State Gaming Control Board is developing a list of questions and concerns when its comes to medical marijuana.
But those talks are nothing compared to the ongoing discussions inside hotel-casino human resources departments and among the corporate office general counsels.
The list of questions grows by the day. For gaming operations with thousands of employees, there are issues surrounding new hires and existing workers, many of whom with job descriptions that require drug screenings.
For example, what to do with an employee who is prescribed medical marijuana by a physician, and would fail a drug test by ingesting the medicine?
And what about hotel-casino guests?
Is medical marijuana treated like any other prescription medication? Would they violate state law by consuming the drug in their hotel room?
“This new and very complex issue brings difficult questions on many fronts for us as Nevada’s largest private employer,” MGM Resorts International Vice President of Public Affairs Gordon Absher said. The company has 54,000 workers in its 17 Silver State hotel-casinos.
“Along with every other employer, we will continue to evaluate the implications of the state law as we review our policies,” Absher said.
Gaming regulators have already taken one stand.
Holders of privileged Nevada gaming licenses will be frowned upon if they decide to invest in the business of medical marijuana, which many proponents believe will have a lucrative return.
The problem? In the eyes of federal prosecutors, marijuana is still viewed as an illegal narcotic.
Investment in a business that sells a product in Nevada — which could land someone prison time in another state — doesn’t interact well with state gaming regulations.
For now, the Control Board is advising license holders to stay away from medical marijuana. If you’re thinking about applying for a Nevada gaming license, it might not be a good idea to invest in pot.
“That would give us some cause for concern,” Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett said. “We would be remiss if we didn’t consider that activity as part of the investigation. It’s a gamble and you need to think it through.”
Gaming is not alone.
Banks and credit card companies have avoided working with marijuana businesses for fear of federal prosecution.
The concerns don’t surprise state Sen. Tick Segerblom. The Las Vegas Democrat championed the bill in the 2013 legislative session that created the medical marijuana dispensary program.
Since the bill’s approval, cities and counties across the state have debated the legalities surrounding dispensaries. None has opened. So Segerblom isn’t surprised the casino industry has its own set of issues.
Funny thing is, he said, medical pot has been around for more than a decade. There may be casino employees and customers already legally using the drug.
However, until dispensaries open, patients are either growing the drug on their own or getting it from caregivers who grow it and donate it. The reality has been that many buy the drug from illegal suppliers.
Segerblom said individual casinos and gaming companies are going to have to come up with methods and guidelines for dealing with the issue of medical marijuana.
“There aren’t any easy answers and obviously there are many more questions surfacing,” Segerblom said.
A legislative interim subcommittee on medical marijuana is expected to meet soon to address some of the issues that have risen since the bill’s passage. Segerblom is positive the medical marijuana matter will be addressed once again when the 2015 legislative session gets underway.
Gaming regulators, however, have to deal with the issue now.
That’s why gaming license holders are being advised to stay away from the medical marijuana trade. Casino employees who, for whatever reason, have to undergo drug testing to keep their jobs can’t ingest medical marijuana, even if it has been prescribed by a doctor.
Meanwhile, what happens if enterprising Nevada lawmakers decide to follow the lead of Colorado and legalize the growing, sale and consumption of small amounts of marijuana?
The Control Board and the Nevada Gaming Commission probably don’t even want to travel down that path.
As gaming regulators, the state agency is mindful of federal laws, in which possession and distribution of marijuana is considered a crime. However, the Justice Department is shying away from prosecuting minor marijuana matters. That could change when a new administration takes over after the 2016 presidential election.
There are just too many questions.
For now, maybe it’s best Nevada’s gaming industry take some advice from the 1978 Cheech and Chong movie, “Up in Smoke” and just “mellow out.”
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