Just How Pot-Friendly Will Atlantic City (And The Casinos) Be If NJ Legalizes Marijuana?

“Going green” could be taking on a new meaning in two casino towns, both of which are of great interest for Frank Gilliam: Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Gilliam, Atlantic City’s mayor, has been one of the strongest proponents of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey. He has said doing so would boost local economies and increase tourism, especially along the Boardwalk.

Last week, the New Jersey Assembly held its first hearing to determine if marijuana should be legalized in the state, according to WHYY.

Just do not expect to be hitting your vape while hitting blackjack in casinos anytime soon.

Atlantic City studies Sin City

On a trip organized by the New Jersey Cannabis Association, Gilliam recently visited Las Vegas to gather intel on how the city has integrated legalized marijuana with its casinos and nightlife.

While the drug has been legal in Nevada since last summer, recreationists are restricted to consuming the product within their own homes. Gilliam wondered how New Jersey could expand on the idea of legalized marijuana.

In December, before Gilliam visited, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval requested the Gaming Policy Committee figure out how casinos can host pot-based conventions and trade shows. Since legalizing marijuana, the state has not allowed the drug to be affiliated with casinos and resorts.

Las Vegas casinos vs legal marijuana

In fact, gaming regulators warned license holders that they could be found unsuitable if they damage the reputation of Nevada’s gaming industry by breaking a federal law. They noted specifically that marijuana use is a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

To boot, some argue that casinos hosting marijuana businesses could be considered racketeering or money laundering under federal regulations. Also, Vegas resorts are not allowed to house marijuana smoking lounges, and there can be no financial deals benefiting a gaming company or a marijuana provider.

Before the New Jersey Assembly began its hearing, Nevada’s Gaming Policy Committee voted to not allow direct relationships between the gaming industry and marijuana distributors. However, casino resorts in the state can hold conventions and conferences to bring pot people together to talk shop, though companies will be prohibited from bringing products to those exhibitions. 

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What is in store for Atlantic City?

New Jersey already allows medicinal marijuana. This new bill would not only legalize the drug but also decriminalize possession, meaning a fine rather than criminal charges for a person holding more than an ounce of pot.

Gilliam reasons that legalizing the drug would allow for cannabis shops to open in the area, particularly in Atlantic City. Those would add to tourists’ experiences and jump-start the local economy.

The mayor has also said that the state could expand on what has happened in Nevada. There could be what Gilliam dubbed as “adult entertainment districts” that would allow visitors to use marijuana while enjoying local restaurants, bars, and spas. 

Gilliam envisions a city that would attract businesses that relate to a younger crowd and continue to boost visitation. In turn, the Atlantic City economy, which has taken a huge hit in recent years with five closed casinos, would see some growth. Coupled with the expected opening of two new casinos — Hard Rock AC and Ocean Resort Casino — the city would have a lot to look forward to.

Will legalizing marijuana affect the AC casino experience?

In Las Vegas, casinos don’t associate with cannabis commerce for fear of losing gaming licenses. Atlantic City would likely do the same for its resorts.

Yet Gilliam is an advocate for creating pot-friendly areas along the Boardwalk. After all, consider Nevada, where consumers can only enjoy the product within their homes.

“That could be good for Atlantic City,” Gilliam said. “If we can roll it out correctly and create a destination facility or area, that would be ideal.”

NJ Sen. Nicholas Scutari, another supporter of legalizing marijuana, said he would be open to the idea of designated smoking zones at clubs or in restricted areas. In Nevada, there are plans — though they are months away — to develop marijuana lounges.

If marijuana is legalized in New Jersey, there could be a downside for the NJ gambling industry. With the opening of pot shops around the area, visitors might be drawn away from the casinos entirely. Or AC may attract a cannabis crowd, which would make a purchase and leave right away.

Gilliam, though, is not a believer in such thinking.

“I don’t have the appetite to just be a pusher of the product,” Gilliam said. “I don’t want people to think that they should just come here, buy it and leave. I want it to be … a destination, where folks can come here and enjoy it in a controlled area.”

About the Author

Grant Lucas

Grant Lucas is a longtime sportswriter who has covered the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. A graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, Grant has covered games and written features and columns surrounding prep sports, Linfield, and Oregon State athletics and the Portland Trail Blazers throughout his career.