The state of Nevada has a long history, being admitted to the Union at the height of the Civil War. But it is best known for a history that comes from a less savory chapter of the American Dream, when Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Anthony Spilotro had a vision for turning the Battle Born State into an empire of wealth and vice. Both men died violently, but their fingerprints remain in the DNA of Nevada’s famously libertarian laws on alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The Las Vegas Review-Journal writes of how the Mafia developed Las Vegas into the city it is today, and the Las Vegas Sun explains that the phrase, “Things were better when the Mob ran this town,” is still commonly heard on the Strip., 
Laws in Sin City
The Italian-American Mafia no longer controls the pulse of Las Vegas and Nevada as they once did, but their influence remains in two of the region’s biggest pastimes: gambling and drinking. Every year, millions of tourists fly into Sin City to partake in the infamously lax alcohol laws, such as being able to engage in public drinking without fear of arrest. A professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas tells the Las Vegas Sun that for many visitors, the lure of the area is to do what they cannot do back home: drink, gamble, and patronize (licensed) brothels (the jurisdiction of which differs from county to county).
A history professor at UNLV explains that Vegas’s culture of being a 24-hour city, where people come to feel good, get lucky, and strike it rich, has molded the city’s (and the state’s) lax regulations on vices, which in turn boosts tourism revenue – which has led to some speculation that Vegas is the most tourism-dependent city in the United States. In 2014, for example, Las Vegas broke records and welcomed 41 million visitors, which led to an economic boom of $45 billion.
But nonetheless, Nevada still has laws concerning the sale and consumption of drugs and alcohol, laws that differ across city and county lines. Some oblivious tourists to the Las Vegas Strip may not be aware that the freedoms they enjoy in Sin City would not be tolerated in other Nevada cities.
Drinking out in the Open
One such confusion is that the world-famous Las Vegas Strip isn’t in the city of Las Vegas; it stretches across the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester. This is an important distinction, as the casinos found on the Strip fall under the administration of Clark County and not necessarily the purview of the city of Las Vegas itself.
Within Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Strip, there are no laws against the public consumption of alcohol, as long as the alcohol is not in a glass container. “We have no issues with people drinking out in the open,” a spokesman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department tells the Las Vegas Sun.
This may seem like a very minor rule, but as recently as 2014, there were literally no rules regarding public drinking on the Las Vegas Strip. In September of that year, the Clark County Board of Commissioners introduced a law that banned people from carrying glass containers holding both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages on the Strip (for fear of littering, and because drunk people tended to wield the glass bottles as weapons). Any other form of holding the liquor – aluminum cans, plastic cups, etc. – is permissible.
Dry Zones in Las Vegas
However, this is Sin City, and the devil is in the details. If the alcohol was purchased in a closed container, the container cannot be opened within 1,000 feet of the store from which it was purchased. On the other hand, if the drink was purchased in an open container (such as a plastic cup), then it can be consumed in the vicinity of the store.
The police spokesman gives a further example: Someone buying a beer from a hotel bar can take their beverage to another location. That is why some casinos offer to transfer customers’ beverages into plastic cups as they leave the premises.
While the police may not have any objection to the open carrying and consumption of alcohol on the Strip, there are zones where such activities are prohibited. Drinking is not allowed within 1,000 feet of the following locations:
- A public or a private school
- A hospital
- A church or a synagogue
- A homeless shelter
- A withdrawal management facility
The legal drinking age in Nevada is 21, which may exclude some younger visitors to the state, even as the city of Las Vegas is positioning itself as a new destination for spring breakers looking for “24-hour parties that start by the pool and end up on a dance floor.” However, according to an officer for the Reno Police Department, there is an exception to the Reno Municipal Code on the topic of underage drinking: As long as the consumption takes place in a private home, it is legal for parents to give their underage children alcohol. The officer even notes that his department sees an increase in underage alcohol consumption around occasions like the holiday season, when police are called on to respond to domestic disturbance calls.
However, both parents and children can get into legal trouble if the child leaves their home drunk and breaks the law as a result of their intoxication. Police are authorized to issue citations or make arrests if the children leave their domicile and are found walking on the streets in a drunken state.
In severe cases, where issues of child endangerment arise, parents could risk losing their parental rights or be arrested.
When it comes to underage drinking, Nevada is one of only 10 states in the country where children can drink inside a bar or restaurant, as long as they have a parent or guardian present, and that person grants explicit permission.
Drinking on the Move
While Las Vegas and the Strip permit the public consumption of alcohol, this does not extend to private cars or public transportation, like city buses or the Las Vegas Monorail. Being intoxicated behind the wheel of a car, even if the engine is off, can still qualify as a DUI in Nevada. And notwithstanding Nevada’s notably lax alcohol laws, standard DUI sentencing protocols apply: possible fines and/or community service, DUI school, and impact panels for a first- or second-time conviction with no fatalities; prison time if the DUI is the third conviction in the past seven years, or if someone was injured or killed as a result of the intoxicated operation of a motor vehicle (per Nevada’s felony laws).
There is no legal restriction on a person bringing their drink with them into a taxi. Some taxi companies may forbid customers from consuming alcohol in a vehicle, but anecdotal stories suggest that the enforcement of this is up to the individual cab drivers.
When it comes to chartered transportation, however, there is no restriction on open containers. This allows party buses and limousines to cater to their customers’ every whim in Sin City.
This also means that, true to Las Vegas’s reputation for being a 24-hour city, alcohol can be purchased at any hour of the day (and night) in Nevada. Unlike neighboring Utah, where alcohol cannot be served after 1 a.m., bars across Nevada can legally sell patrons booze 24 hours a day. There is, effectively, no “last call” in Nevada. Packaged alcohol can also be bought at liquor stores, convenience stores, and grocery stores.
With such leniency granted toward the consumption of alcohol, Nevada state law does not make public intoxication illegal, and actually prohibits any county, city, or town from introducing their own laws to make public drunkenness a crime. Naturally, exceptions abound. If the intoxication is in the context of a civil or criminal offense, such as driving under the influence or disturbing the peace, the public intoxication could increase the chance of the police placing an offender under arrest. Being inebriated cannot be used as an excuse for a criminal action.
Esmerelda and Storey Counties
One potential effect of Nevada’s relatively open laws on the sale and consumption of alcohol is that two counties within the state have been ranked in the top 10 (of 3,000 counties) for having the highest rates of heavy drinking and binge drinking.
The national study defined “heavy drinking” as women having more than the average of one drink a day, and men having two drinks a day, for a month. For binge drinking, a man would have to consume five or more drinks across two hours; a woman would need to have four or more drinks in two hours.
The difference is due to how male and female bodies metabolize alcohol. Since women are generally physically smaller than men, less alcohol is required to produce a blood alcohol level resulting in intoxication. Alcohol is also processed by the body at a slower rate in women than in men, which contributes to women having a lower threshold for both binge drinking and heavy drinking.
With that in mind, Esmeralda County came out on top in two categories: counties with the highest rate of drinking for both sexes (22.4 percent), and counties with the highest rates of heavy drinking for women (22.2 percent). A little lower down the list is Story County, coming in at number seven for the same categories (18.6 percent for heavy drinking across both sexes, and 17 percent for heavy drinking among women).
The Reno Gazette-Journal writes that the Storey County courts, led by the district attorney, have been investigating ways to improve mental health care programs for people who have problems with alcohol consumption, who find themselves at the mercy of the criminal justice system.
Cannabis in the Silver State
Nevada’s long and liberal history with alcohol has been a point of discussion, as the state asks its citizens: Do you want recreational marijuana to be legalized in 2016?
Nevada has kept a close eye on Colorado, just one state over, to see how much has changed in that state since it regulated the use of recreational marijuana in 2014. Nevada’s version of the law would legalize 1 ounce or less of marijuana for recreational use by people at least 21 years of age. The law would also levy a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale sales of marijuana; the direct revenue generated from these taxes would go to K-12 education.
The marijuana editor for the Denver Post tells Nevada Public Radio that it is a “very big deal” that Nevada is considering following in Colorado’s footsteps. If California voters reject recreational cannabis (as they have done so in the past), Nevada stands to make a killing from so-called “pot tourism.” In Colorado, for example, a survey by the state’s tourism office found that 48 percent of visitors came to Colorado because they wanted to enjoy a legal high. The former head of the Colorado Tourism Office told the Denver Post that marijuana is “extremely influential” in his state’s tourism.
Creating Difficult Business Models
Given that Las Vegas is already one of the most tourism-dependent cities in the United States, the thought of doing even more visitor-oriented business on the Strip has made the prospect of legalizing cannabis a very popular topic for discussion.
To that effect, local officials believe Nevada is the most likely state to legalize marijuana in 2016. The CEO of Cannabis Career Institute, who has more than three decades’ worth of experience in the marijuana industry, told KTNV that Nevada has a great deal of expertise in “creating businesses that were difficult in creating business models for.”
In the same way that Las Vegas’s bars and casinos have influenced a business model unlike any other, cannabis could carve a similar path, says the owner of Nevada Wellness Center. That spirit of entrepreneurship has led to the marijuana initiative already getting a place on the November 2016 ballot.
If local officials are convinced that Nevada will legalize marijuana, then marijuana advocates are all but lighting up to celebrate. Leafly lists Nevada first on its list of “Which states are [the] most likely to legalize cannabis in 2016?” – writing that the move is a “sure bet.” Of all the campaigns to promote the topic, Nevada’s was the first to officially get the required number of signatures to put the issue on the ballot. As a sign of how Nevada’s famously liberal laws on alcohol have influenced a new generation, the 170,000 signees were 60,000 more than the required number to get on the ballot and came in two years ahead of schedule.
Making Marijuana Legal Is Big Business
Despite the enthusiasm for Nevada becoming the sixth state to allow its residents and tourists to smoke recreational marijuana, the journey toward legalizing medicinal marijuana was surprisingly difficult (especially considering how welcoming the state has historically been to letting people legally, if restrictedly, indulging in their vices).
International Business Times writes of how Las Vegas’s tough rules on marketing have made life difficult for the Las Vegas ReLeaf medical marijuana dispensary to advertise itself to potential customers. Even giving away the location of the facility has proven a step too far. Along with other restrictions, the dispensary cannot be listed on the billboard of the strip mall where it is located, a problem its neighbors (a 7-Eleven, a nail salon, and a massage parlor) do not have.
Nevada legalized medical marijuana in 2013 and hosts the first cannabis dispensary system in the country to offer reciprocity: Medical marijuana cards issued in any other state will be honored in Nevada. And this could mean big business for Nevada’s marijuana industry. In 2015, 0.34 percent of Americans were issued medical marijuana licenses (approximately 1.1 million people). If 0.34 percent of Las Vegas’s 41 million yearly tourists used medical cannabis, the 40 dispensaries in the Vegas area alone could service an additional 140,000 customers every year. The Verge estimates that the Las Vegas marijuana market alone might eventually be worth $1.5 billion every year.
The executive director of the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association said that with Nevada being a state where people come to have fun, it makes sense that the availability of legalized marijuana will fit right in with the legalized gambling, legalized prostitution, and 24/7 liquor sales. “We regulate vice quite well here,” he says.
Marijuana advocates have cause to wonder if Nevada regulates vice too well. International Business Times writes that even as the state opened its doors to medical marijuana, its officials wrote laws that rank as some of the tightest and most inflexible in the country. In one way, it’s how Nevada regulates vice; in other way, it is how businesses make money. The two worlds coming together have created a jungle of bureaucracy and a marijuana market that is controlled by people who have the deepest wallets and the best connections.
The control manifested almost as soon as Nevada voted to legalize medical cannabis in 2000; patients were required to grow their own marijuana, but there was no provision for how they could legally
obtain the cannabis seeds to do so. Thirteen years later, the state legislature legalized marijuana dispensaries, which opened the door to allowing the resources and infrastructure for the medical marijuana industry to fully operate.
Even then, dispensaries (like Las Vegas ReLeaf) had to deal with special rules imposed by the city of Las Vegas, with regard to how the facilities could conduct business within city limits. The laws included limitations on the amount of shelf space that the dispensary could allocate to pipes, rolling papers, and other paraphernalia. The dispensary could not sell attire with the brand’s name on it, and the size and location of the store’s signage was “severely” restricted.
Las Vegas may regulate vice a bit too well, but the further away a Nevada dispensary is from Sin City, the easier life seems to be. Inyo Fine Cannabis is less than two miles away from Las Vegas ReLeaf, but it is in unincorporated Clark County. That difference allows Inyo Fine Cannabis to have what it calls “the biggest cannabis sign in the
world.” Similarly, Silver State Relief in Sparks, just outside the Californian border, was practically welcomed by the city, which “basically rubber-stamped everything,” says the owner of the dispensary.
As voters consider the options before them, the director for health policy research at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, and president of the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition, writes in the Reno Gazette-Journal that the “legal weed” initiative could undo the “enormous social inequities and public costs” of incarcerating scores of nonviolent offenders in Nevada jails, all part of a “largely failed war on drugs” that has unwittingly funded a market for marijuana-related crime.
Instead, writes the director, legalizing marijuana will introduce a new industry into a state that knows all too well how to regulate and industrialize goods and services that outsiders may look at askance.
Nevada’s Drug Courts
However, the state of Nevada has recognized that it’s laissez-faire laws on drugs and alcohol have come with a human cost, and it has responded with notable positivity. In covering Nevada’s drug courts, the Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court as saying that his state’s drug courts have had an unprecedented positive impact on the criminal justice system, the prison system, and crime overall. The right balance of mercy and justice put forward by the specialized court offers nonviolent and first-time offenders a tangible chance to make a difference in their lives and in their communities.
Twenty years after the Nevada drug courts were established, the program has celebrated 5,200 “graduates.” Follow-up data shows that 70 percent of people who complete their court-mandated treatment and rehabilitation do not commit any more crimes. Not only are their criminal records wiped, the drug court system itself saves taxpayers more than $40 million in ensuring that people who do not need to be imprisoned are not taking up time and money in the Clark County Detention Center. Clark County offers multiple types of drug courts, including programs that focus on DUI convictions and mental health issues.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the chief justice called the drug court system “one of the most successful prison diversion programs” in the criminal justice system, offering a second chance to people who have found themselves on the dark side of Nevada’s celebrated laws regarding drugs and alcohol.
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 Was Life Really Better When the Mob Ruled Las Vegas?” (February 2012). Las Vegas Sun. Accessed May 3, 2016.
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