Vancouver and Vegas: A Tale of Cannabis in Two Cities

Vendors at Vancouver’s 420 Festival. Photo by Launce Rake

Vancouver, British Columbia and Las Vegas are a study in contrasts and parallels. Both cities are justly famed for their gastronomic offerings, both are about the same population, both are largely 20th century creations. Vancouver, of course, is cool and wet, sandwiched between mountains and ocean, while Las Vegas is hot and dry and lies amidst mountains and desert.

But both cities are going through a process of marijuana legal reform; while some of the changes are similar—both cities should end up with a regulated process for sale and use of recreational cannabis—the road to that destination is already very different.

Recreational use is already openly tolerated in Vancouver, much as it is in its sister cities below the Canadian border, Seattle and Portland. Dispensaries and coffee shops openly sell or allow cannabis use. (Literally the first person I saw when a taxi dropped me off at my Vancouver hotel a couple of weeks ago was a guy sitting on the sidewalk, smoking weed.) Recreational use is now allowed by Nevada law in one’s home, but it would be wise to avoid testing the patience of Metro police officers by smoking on the Strip—open outdoor use remains illegal.

Vancouver’s pot-smokers are anticipating a sea change as Canada’s federal government, the Liberal Party (which is actually Canada’s conservative party) is backing legalization and regulation of cannabis sales and use.

In the United States, of course, the conservative Republican Party, nationally led by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is promising a crackdown on marijuana, even (or especially) in states that allow medical or recreational use. This is causing concern amongst state and local governments hungry for the tax revenue that marijuana generates. That particular political drama is far from resolved but, on the state level, Nevada is debating legislations that could lead to legal recreational use in designated public spaces.

The difference between Vancouver and Las Vegas was illustrated by a couple of recent festivals celebrating cannabis in the two cities. According to the Vancouver Sun, police pegged the number of attendees at the city’s annual 420 Vancouver festival at 40,000 this year, up from 25,000 in 2016. That’s despite having no permit to hold the festival anywhere in Vancouver, especially in one of the city’s signature public parks. Cops and EMTs still came out to take care of the (very sparse) trouble, and the main hangover is the city complaining about the mud pit that formed in front of the concert stage. One casual observer, who had covered large drug busts by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in South America and the Caribbean, noted that he had never seen more dope in one place in his entire life.

Contrast Vancouver’s crowd with Las Vegas’ recent Hempfest at Craig Ranch Regional Park in April, which drew 15,000 or so weed fans. Of course, the Vancouver festival was free, while people paid hundreds for tickets to the Las Vegas event; other than that, the events were similar, with attendees openly ingesting various intoxicating cannabis products.

Both cities are home to cannabis dispensaries, stores that operate openly (and theoretically) for medical marijuana patients. With a closer look, though, the similarity breaks down. Nevada dispensaries are highly regulated and, despite a law allowing recreational use, only sell to buyers with medical authorizations.

In Vancouver, dispensaries are operating in a largely unregulated grey market. They can have different rules from shop to shop. One, operating near the popular tourist area called Gastown, The Farm would sell to anyone with a government ID—from any country. And just across the busy downtown street, dealers would sell cannabis to anyone, ID or not. Also, the prices were much lower in Vancouver than for similar products in legal Nevada dispensaries. A joint might go for anywhere from $1.50 to $3 in U.S. dollars; four potent edible cookies for $10; capsules with cannabis concentrate sold for about the same as a joint. (The young woman at The Farm suggested, wisely, “take just one.”)

And there is another big difference between Vancouver and Vegas: While both have problems with hard drugs, heroin is an epidemic that is literally claiming hundreds of lives a month from overdoses in Vancouver. It’s hard to imagine Las Vegas ever tolerating the sort of open use you can see in the Canadian city’s homeless corridor.

Las Vegas, of course, has problems all its own to deal with. Both cities will find a way to legalize marijuana use and, ideally, they can figure out a path that works by watching the successes and failures of the other.