An organizer for a marijuana-related convention in Las Vegas said he was "ambushed" when he called for a Jan. 27 meeting with law enforcement officers and Mandalay Bay officials to discuss security concerns for his March event.
He walked into a room of more than 100 Metropolitan Police Department officers, county sheriffs, undercover vice cops, surveillance and security staff from Mandalay Bay, gaming control and alcohol bureau officers.
"I felt ambushed, like Gen. Custer surrounded by Indians," Lou Woznicki of Los Angeles-based Skunk Runner Media said Friday. "It was unbelievable."
Mandalay Bay notified him the next day that the convention, Cannapalooza, scheduled for March 19-21, had been canceled. It was billed as the "largest head shop on the planet," a 50,000-square-foot marketplace for all things related to marijuana culture, from hand-blown glassware to hemp clothing and cosmetics.
Woznicki said the event was expected to draw 50,000 people and would have been good for the Las Vegas economy, especially in light of disparaging remarks from President Barack Obama about leisure and business travel to Las Vegas.
The goal was to create a "fun, safe, educational event," he said. In addition to exhibitors, guest speakers would be addressing legalization, decriminalization and medical benefits of marijuana, along with home garden technology and trends.
"I called the meeting because I wanted them to see the name and face behind the show and to assure them that I'm on board with crowd control and keeping things in order," the promoter said. "We'd hire extra security and we'd like to have Vegas law enforcement involved.
"When I walked into that room, I was amazed and shocked at the number of people. I asked, 'What are these people so afraid of?' "
Those who had registered for Cannapalooza called Mandalay Bay to inquire about the show's status and the return of their hotel room deposits. They were told organizers canceled the event, Woznicki said.
"For the record, we have never even remotely considered canceling," he said. "Our show, right from the beginning, had been carefully crafted and nurtured, and at the time we were terminated, we had amassed a huge and fervent following."
MGM Mirage spokeswoman Yvette Monet said company policy prohibits discussing details of convention business contracts.
Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said narcotics officers attended the meeting to express their concerns about marijuana possession being illegal in Nevada, but it wasn't their decision to cancel the event. That decision was made by Mandalay Bay, she said.
Woznicki said he was "enthusiastically embraced" by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and major hotels such as Caesars Palace, Bally's and Paris Las Vegas when he first pitched the event. He chose Mandalay Bay because the preferred weekend date was available.
"When I talked to them on the phone in December, I sensed there was trouble brewing. I felt there was a negative vibe there," Woznicki said. "Even at the meeting, a Mandalay Bay security guy said, 'Pot smokers don't drink and gamble and that's where we make our money. It's bad for business.' "
Las Vegas saw a 24.6 percent decline in convention attendance in 2009 and a 14.8 percent decline in the number of conventions held, the convention and visitors authority reported.
Obama chastised banks last year for planning business meetings in Las Vegas after receiving federal bailout money. On Tuesday he slammed the city again, warning Americans, "You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you're trying to save for college."
"Vegas needs the income," said Jaren Sena of Fresh Brewed Concepts, a Las Vegas-based company that was contracted in December to do advertising and marketing for Cannapalooza. "To cancel for fear of pot smokers ... I think the economy is so bad and here's a viable means to help the economy."
Marijuana is gaining mainstream acceptance for medical use and has become a political hot button in states with huge budget deficits such as California, where some 1,000 medical marijuana distribution outlets are operating.
Sena said he had already spent a "good chunk" on national advertising for Cannapalooza, including printing 250,000 fliers, marketing heavily in Denver; Salt Lake City; Phoenix; Albuquerque, N.M.; San Diego; Los Angeles; and Orange County, Calif.
Woznicki said he paid a $10,000 deposit when he signed the contract with Mandalay Bay in September and has invested about $250,000 in advertising and public relations for the event.
Contact reporter Hubble Smith at email@example.com or 702-383-0491.