In November, New Jersey joined the small but growing fraternity of U.S. states whose voters have legalized recreational marijuana.
In the near term, don’t expect Atlantic City casinos to open pot dispensaries or allow joints to be smoked at blackjack tables. In fact, legal pot may have little direct influence on the state’s casino industry. But it could provide a competitive edge—as long as legal pot is unavailable in adjoining jurisdictions.
Casinos must comply with federal regulations that still prohibit recreational pot, observed Jane F. Bokunewicz of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism, based at New Jersey’s Stockton University. “So we can expect casinos to be extremely cautious with respect to the use of cannabis products on their property.”
And as for sales, well, they’re definitely out, said Bill Pascrell III, lobbyist with the Princeton Public Affairs Group. “There’s no chance in hell that there’ll be retail sales on casino properties,” he told GGB News. “At all.”
Yet legalization could have a tangential effect, attracting more tourists from states where pot isn’t readily available. That means you, Pennsylvania and New York.
“Atlantic City will see visitors from states where cannabis is still illegal, and that in itself remains a draw for some tourists,” said Morgan Fox, media relations director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
And while casinos likely won’t host pot pubs and the like, Atlantic City could establish a “cannabis quarter” in town that would grow, cultivate and sell various forms of marijuana.
“This can be proximate to casinos,” Pascrell said, and may spark an economic mini-boom in itself.
The tax revenue, potential jobs and tourism opportunities of a cultivation center would benefit the city, Fox added, “It makes as much sense as any other retail establishment that benefits from foot traffic and tourism.”
Cultivation labs are both discreet and unobtrusive, added Rob Mejia, adjunct faculty in Cannabis Studies at Stockton University and president of Our Community Harvest: A Cannabis Education Company.
What the law will still prohibit is partaking of marijuana in public, whether in a park, on the beach or on a casino floor.
“There are so many prohibitions about where you can’t use marijuana, that the short answer for now is in a private home,” Pascrell said.
“You can’t do it on any state or federal-owned site, including housing. Things like consumption lounges are down the road,” Mejia said.
Over time, as recreational cannabis becomes more mainstream, it could be approved for use within a casino environment, just like smoking and alcohol use, in designated public spaces or private hotel rooms.
“It’s more a smoking issue than anything else—you can never smoke (pot) on a casino floor,” said Pascrell. “But you can smoke a joint outside a property and go into the casino. And with edibles, you can’t tell. There’s no way to monitor that unless you’re obnoxious.”
Another important wrinkle in all this: New Jersey might say cannabis is legal, but the feds still say otherwise—at least until Congress approves a federal law legalizing marijuana.
For a number of years, federal law enforcement hasn’t focused on cannabis providers in states where it’s legal, even after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo that said the feds wouldn’t enforce the federal law, Fox said. “But the fact that cannabis is still illegal federally continues to make some companies reticent to do business with regulated cannabis businesses, particularly large companies in regulated industries like gaming.”
On February 24, Stockton held a webinar, “Destination Cannabis,” on integrating recreational cannabis into the hospitality and tourism industry. Speakers said it would take time to evolve.
“I really got the message that education is critical to getting this off the ground safely and responsibly,” said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, which co-sponsored the webinar with the Levenson Institute.
Survey Says… Edibles Preferred
A 2019 survey conducted by the California Cannabis Tourism Association found that 29 percent of the leisure travel audience wants the ability to access cannabis-related services, said the association’s Brian Applegarth, who was a panelist at the Stockton webinar. The survey also said that smoking weed was the least preferred way to ingest cannabis, after edibles, drinkables and topicals.
“Partnerships will be important for destination events,” Applegarth said. “Having some hospitality training and knowing what visitors want will be important. You have to know your audience.”
And while edibles are most popular, they bring their own challenges, as most of the people creating them have no food background.
“Trained chefs could do more,” according to David Yusefzadeh, a Massachusetts-based chef and food designer and CEO/founder of Cloud Creamery, a cannabis ice cream company. “But you have to have patience. You’ll be dealing with the government for permits, and they’re also learning,”
Whether in joint form, edible form or as a drink, marijuana can impair the senses, as does alcohol. And that means casino employees need to be able to single out those whose impairment reaches dangerous levels.
“Casino employees already know how to deal with erratic behavior associated with alcohol,” Fox said. “The association of cannabis with violent, aggressive or otherwise dangerous behavior is far, far less than that of alcohol. It will not be difficult to incorporate education to identify signs of cannabis overconsumption into existing employee training programs.”
Research and experience has led businesses that serve alcohol to gauge levels of impairment and the point at which a customer should be denied service. “Until mainstream knowledge and experience of cannabis products catches up, it will be incredibly difficult for operators to define impairment related to the use of cannabis products and educate employees in how to best serve and protect customers under the influence of these products,” Bokunewicz said.
Various cannabis products deliver different levels of the psychoactive compound THC, she added, from a very mild or negligible dose to quite a strong dose. “Until assessment and action tools are developed for operators, we can expect them to be wary of openly accepting the use of cannabis products, especially those high in THC, at their facilities,” she said.
At this point, only 11 states have legalized recreational pot. Thirty-five have medical marijuana programs. The remaining states adhere to the federal law, under which marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug.
Post-Covid, Will Smoking Return to NJ Casinos?
As a result of restrictions imposed to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, New Jersey has prohibited smoking on casino floors. But as restrictions ease, will the practice be allowed to resume? Maybe not.
According to the advocacy group Americans for Nonsmokers Rights (AFNR), more and more casinos nationwide have chosen to be smoke-free. At least 160 sovereign tribal gaming venues have implemented 100 percent smoke-free policies during Covid-19. And 23 states require commercial casinos to be smoke-free indoors.
“Smoke-free casinos are becoming more inevitable every day,” Bronson Frick, director of advocacy for the group, told GGB News. “Casinos in New Jersey as well as in neighboring Pennsylvania have adapted to operating smoke-free properties during this pandemic. And for the first time ever, gaming workers have not been forced to breathe in secondhand smoke, which everyone knows leads to serious health repercussions such as cancer.”
Claims that smoke-free policies hurt revenues are no longer accurate, Frick said. “It’s well past time for casinos to operate like a modern industry and permanently adopt smoke-free indoor policies that protect workers and guests and attract new customers who prefer a smoke-free environment. Just consider that among young adults, 90 percent are nonsmokers.”
That figure may not include marijuana smokers, some of whom think smoking cannabis is not as damaging as smoking tobacco. But Frick said smoke-free policies should cover all forms of use: tobacco, vaping and marijuana.
“The policy approach we recommend is to take it outside—shift smoking to outdoor patios off the gaming floors and food and beverage areas.”