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March 26, 2013

Bars test limits of legal-marijuana laws

TACOMA, Wash. — John Connelly leaned forward on his barstool, set his lips against a clear glass pipe and inhaled a white cloud of marijuana vapor.

A handful of people milled around him. Three young women stood behind the bar, ready to assist with the preparation of the bongs, as the strains of a blues band playing downstairs sounded faintly off the exposed brick walls.

"It feels so comfortable in here," said Connelly, 33. "It's just a great social aspect."

Welcome to the Stonegate — puns welcome. It's one of a tiny number of bars, cafes and private clubs catering to the stoner class in Washington and Colorado since voters last fall made them the first states to legalize marijuana for adults over 21.

Both states bar the public use of marijuana — which typically would include bars and restaurants — and most bars are steering clear of allowing pot use at least until officials come up with rules for the new weed industry.

But a few have been testing the boundaries of what's allowed in hopes of drumming up business and making a political statement.

"I've been running a bar a few years now, and people would always go outside around the corner, into the shadows, to smoke up," said Jeff Call, the Stonegate's owner. "People shouldn't have to hide. There's no rules yet, but I'm trying to do this thoughtfully and responsibly."

Washington's law bans pot distribution by anyone but a licensed seller — and no such licenses will be issued until the end of the year at the earliest. There's also a statewide smoking ban that prohibits smoking where people work.

So the establishments are trying various strategies to allow on-site consumption.

Frankie's Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia is less than a mile from the headquarters of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, where officials are writing rules for the pot industry. It allows members of its private smoking room to use tobacco or marijuana.

The owner, Frankie Schnarr, said his revenue has jumped by nearly half since he started allowing pot smoking in December.

In Denver, Club 64 — named after Colorado's law, Amendment 64 — charges a $30 yearly membership for the privilege of getting high in a private social setting. Members receive emails alerting them to the locations of club "meetings," like a recent St. Patrick's Day party hosted by a local bar, featuring marijuana-infused green beer.

Club 64 owner Robert Corry, an attorney, wants to open a bar where he can welcome members on a daily basis.

"A marijuana club is exactly what the voters wanted," Corry said. "Colorado voters knew exactly what we were doing."

The Front Tea & Art Shop in Lafayette, about 20 miles north of Denver, offered "cannabis-friendly" evenings six nights a week at which customers over 21 were allowed to bring their own pot.

Owner Veronica Carpio said the cafe attracted 25 people a day — until last month, when Lafayette declared a moratorium on pot use at businesses. She's suing, arguing the city overstepped its authority.

Anyone who wanders up the stairs to the Stonegate's second-floor smoking lounge is charged a nominal fee — $1 a day to $20 a year — to become a member of the private club. To evade the smoking ban, there's no smoking allowed — only "vaporizing," a method that involves heating the marijuana without burning it.

Call provides space in the lounge — an L-shaped bar of blond wood, painted with portraits of Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughn and other rock heroes — to the proprietor of a local medical marijuana dispensary.

People who don't have a medical authorization have to bring their own pot, then rent a vaporizer — $10 by the half-hour — or pay to have one prepared for them. For $5, those who do have an authorization are offered various preparations of "shatter" — a hardened oil of powerful marijuana extract.

Call opened his rum-and-pizza joint a few years ago in a brick building along a formerly seedy stretch of shops, bars and restaurants. The second floor had recently been operated as a brothel, he said.

On a recent Friday night, a gentle scent of fresh marijuana filled the room. At one table, a handful of twenty-somethings inhaled deeply from a rubber hose attached to a rented vaporizer, a black box that toasted the cannabis to 375 degrees.

Those who wanted a more powerful dose grabbed a seat at the bar, where Jenae DeCampo, a 21-year-old in a black tube-top, pulled out a small blowtorch.

DeCampo held the hissing flame to the metal stem of a clear glass bong until the metal glowed orange. With a wand, she picked up a small piece of what looked like amber — a chunk of potent, hardened marijuana oil — and rubbed it on the scorching metal.

A white cloud filled the pipe, bubbled through the water at the bottom and rushed into Connelly's lungs.

"A lot of people are shocked by what we're doing because it's so uncommon," DeCampo said. "I like being part of something that could possibly be big."

Tacoma's code enforcement staff is reviewing the Stonegate's operation, a city spokeswoman said.

Justin Nordhorn, the state liquor board's chief of enforcement, has some concerns about bars that allow pot use. Most importantly, he said, is that marijuana can compound alcohol's intoxicating effects, meaning people might be even more dangerous when driving.

He also doubted whether the "private club" aspect of the establishments would keep them out of trouble. A truly private club that serves alcohol — say, an Elks Lodge — would have to have a liquor license specific to private clubs, and members of the public couldn't be allowed in.

For now, Nordhorn noted, there is a loophole in the state board's ability to block bars from allowing pot use. Its rules require bars to address on-site criminal violations, but public use of marijuana is only a civil infraction — meaning officials can't necessarily punish bars that let people partake, even if police could come in and write tickets to toking customers.

That's something the board could address as it makes rules for the new pot industry.

For now, Call's goal is to get more people into the bar — people who will get hungry and order pizzas.

"People are just smiling and friendly and happy," Call said. "I just really like the feeling you get when you're up here."

___

 

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