Stonegate welcomes Tacoma’s first pot club

The first licensed marijuana retail outlets aren't expected to be up and running until December. But one Tacoma business is already capitalizing on the legalization of recreational pot use in Washington, as allowed by the passage of Initiative 502 in November.

Stonegate Pizza & Rum Bar, which is located at 5419 South Tacoma Way, launched its new Vape Club on Jan. 29. It's run in conjunction with Green Light Expo, a collective medical marijuana garden located across the street.

Potential club members fill out an application and pay a nominal fee: $1 for a one-day membership, $5 for a week and $20 for a year. Then they're allowed into the Stonegate's upstairs lounge, where they can puff on vapor pens loaded with cannabis-infused oil.

Stonegate owner Jeff Call said the Vape Club had about 80 members as of Monday. He and local pot activist Michael Schaef, who runs Green Light Expo, cited the stagnant economy as motivation to try a bold, new idea that had yet to be legally tested.

“To be quite frank with you, we're really struggling,” Schaef said, suggesting the club would boost business and create jobs. “We're just going for it. If this doesn't work or seem to make the city happy, we'll try something different.”

Schaef went on to explain how he and Call had navigated various loopholes in I-502, which regulates marijuana production, distribution and possession; Senate Bill 5073, which established rules for medical marijuana; and Washington's 2005 ban on smoking in public establishments.

“We don't allow smoking of cannabis,” he said. “You can't smoke a joint, a blunt or a pipe because of the smoke. What we do allow is vaporizing the oil.”

But customers can't buy oil at the venue. I-502 allows for the possession of an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana infused product in solid form or 72 ounces of marijuana infused liquid. But the Washington State Liquor Control Board has yet to license any retailers.

“So you can only bring your own medicine in,” Schaef said. “Or you can come over to the Green Light – if you're a patient, of course – and acquire your meds and bring those over there with you.

“You come over here, meet with your caregiver. He gives you a token. That token will give you a hit of their oil at the bar, because you can't purchase it.”

The Stonegate is not the only South Sound establishment that has set up a private club to allow customers to use marijuana there.

In December, the Olympian reported that owner Frank Schnarr was inviting pot smokers to come to Frankie's Sports Bar & Grill in Olympia where they can join Friends of Frankie's; after paying $10 in annual dues, members are allowed to toke on premises.

Alison Holcomb, the drug policy director for ACLU Washington, addressed potential legal snags the pot clubs could face. For example, I-502 prohibits the use of marijuana in public.

“Private establishments that are generally open to the public, like restaurants and nightclubs and things like that, are considered to be in view of the general public,” Holcomb said. “so the question becomes whether or not it's sufficiently a private event where not just any member of the public may attend.”

Related to that issue is the amount being charged for club membership. Holcomb said that if a judge were to determine that dues were so cheap they essentially served as a cover charge the local marijuana clubs could be forced to shut down.

The Washington State Liquor Board has until Dec. 1 to hash out criteria for being licensed to grow, distribute and sell marijuana. Eventually, there will be pot shops that are regulated much like the old state-run liquor stores.

Pot outlets will only be able to sell marijuana products, so you won't see pot brownies at your local grocery store. They won't be able to sell to anyone under 21, and they won't be able to operate within 1,000 yards of a school.

Since, the passage of SB 5703 in 2011, local jurisdictions have varied in their tolerance of medical marijuana dispensaries. Those and collective gardens were “intended to, essentially, be a closed system that didn't involve commercial transactions,” Holcomb said. “What you're seeing with some of these safe access points is a creative pushing of the envelope to fit commercial transactions into the definition of a collective garden.”

Holcomb speculated that the dispensaries could be greatly impacted as the rules for pot commerce solidify. “Once the 502 retail outlets are up and running and patients have access to licensed, regulated, quality controlled marijuana in the state, will the local jurisdictions have the same tolerance toward the medical marijuana safe access points?” she wondered.

A series of public forums have been held around the state to educate the public on the implementation of I-502. The next one scheduled for the South Sound will be held from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Washington State Liquor Control Board Headquarters, 3000 Pacific Ave. SE, in Olympia. Find a full schedule at http://www.liq.wa.gov.

Learn more about Initiative 502 and its implementation on the Washington State Liquor Control Board's web site, http://www.liq.wa.gov.

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