A group of medical-marijuana dispensary owners at the State Capitol yesterday afternoon urged authorities to shut down unregulated cannabis clubs.
Meanwhile, up the road in a small, west Valley strip mall, medical-marijuana patients toked up openly in a "lounge" that has the look, feel, and scent of a Dutch coffeeshop.
It's similar to a drinking establishment, but rented glass bongs rest on the bar instead of mugs of beer. Patrons can buy snacks and sodas, not alcoholic beverages. Colored, dimmed lights hang help provide a mellow atmosphere, A high-def TV plays music from YouTube; and video games are available upon request.
The entrepreneur behind the Arizona Vapor Lounge, BIll Hayes, says his business is a budding franchise: He expects 14 similar lounges across the state to open in the next two months.
Hayes has done some advertising for his business, including launching a Facebook site, and he encourages us to publish the lounge's address -- 4230 West Dunlap Avenue -- even though the last time we wrote about one his ventures, the Arizona Cannabis Society, the place was raided by police a few weeks later. No charges ever came of that raid, and the businessman/anti-prohibition activist is once again pushing the envelope.
Although the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act prohibits smoking marijuana in a "public place," the phrase "public place" is somewhat flexible. Medical-pot rules developed by the Arizona Department of Public Health define "public place" as "any location, facility, or venue that is not intended for the regular exclusive use of an individual or a specific group of individuals."
The Vapor Lounge is intended for the exclusive use of a group of individuals, meaning the people inside can smoke pot legally, Hayes says. The clientele must pay five dollars to sign up for a membership, though Hayes says the place isn't a "club," but a "social lounge."
For two bucks, patients can rent a high-tech bong -- in fact, a shelf full of expensive waterpipes is sponsored by BENT Glass, a bong-making company, Hayes says.
Hayes credits Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery for giving him the idea for the lounge's business model.
The voter-approved pot law prohibits marijuana from being sold anywhere except in state-licensed dispensaries, and it's forbidden to transfer medical marijuana for anything of value. Yet numerous cannabis clubs sprang up around the state after prohibitionist Governor Jan Brewer delayed the dispensary portion of the law. A judge eventually ordered her to allow the stores to open. Since then, a few state-authorized dispensaries have opened in Arizona, including one in the Phoenix metro area.
Montgomery has previously blasted the practices of cannabis clubs, noting that the high fees charged for club membership in return for "free" marijuana seemed to be nothing more than a cover for retail sales.
So, Hayes says, he decided to open a "lounge" that charged a small fee, but still allowed patients to share and obtain marijuana.
The lounge has three rules, according to Hayes: No selling. No mooching. No drama.
If someone brings his or her own medicine to the lounge, the law allows the free exchange of marijuana with other patients. That could be helpful for a patient who wants to sample the effects of various strains of marijuana. A patient and "supporting member" can also bring a guest to the lounge, Hayes says.
Patients who need medicine can obtain it -- for "free" -- at the lounge by utilizing Hayes' raffle system. He explains that patients purchase raffle tickets, and in return are given "free" gifts including medical cannabis. The prizes given away in the raffle each week are substantial, including items such as pricey, high-quality bongs, Hayes says. The "upgraded membership" at the lounge offers educational classes, massage therapy and other alternative-medicine services contracted with other firms.
"I want people to come in and to be social," Hayes says. "To meet and network with other, like-minded individuals."
On Thursday afternoon, about a dozen members were at the lounge. One puffed on a blunt while most used bongs or pipes. Members chatted and joked among each other as they smoked. It's "Cheers" with weed.
One patient at the bar held a large bong, using a gas torch to heat up a bowl containing "wax," a marijuana resin, until it glowed red.
"You can't have this at home, especially with kids around," he says of the high-tech bong after taking a hit. "It's an easier environment to smoke into."
Small events have been held at the lounge, and pro-pot groups like Moms for Marijuana have used it as a meeting place.
Smoking isn't allowed in any Arizona bar that we know of. But again, this is a private lounge, for members only. We have no idea if the concept is truly legal under the Medical Marijuana Act or other state laws, but Hayes exudes confidence. He's had police stop at the lounge a couple of times; he says he told the officers they can't go past the screen just inside the front door unless they have medical-marijuana cards, and they went away.
We asked Hayes if he and his partners might be considered partially responsible if an accident happens after someone leaves the lounge and drives while impaired.
"It's similar to a bar," he answers. "If you close your eyes in here, I'm calling you a cab."
The law doesn't prohibit patients from driving with marijuana in their systems, but does prohibit driving while impaired. The situation is similar to driving after drinking a couple of beers or glasses of wine -- legal, unless the driver is impaired to the "slightest degree." A major difference, though, is that booze-consuming drivers could be prosecuted for a DUI with a BAC of .08 or above, while the law has no such threshold for marijuana use.
Neither the lounge's business model, nor that of the cannabis clubs, have been declared illegal by any court. State Attorney General Tom Horne deemed the clubs to be illegal back in August of 2011. He sued in Maricopa County Superior Court with the hopes of getting a judge to rule in his favor. The case ended instead with a settlement that merely kept a couple of clubs closed.
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However, Montgomery, the county attorney, has prosecuted successfully several principals of cannabis clubs, including one managed by Al Sobol, the high-profile marijuana marketer we wrote about in a cover story last year. With the owners of state-authorized dispensaries now calling for the closure of the clubs, it's tough to predict whether Hayes' dream of a statewide franchise of coffeeshop-esque vapor lounges will ever come true.
But for now, the flagship lounge on Dunlap is no pipe-dream -- it's a concrete example of the revolutionary change in how Arizonans view the use of marijuana.
After we left the lounge, we wandered into the dive bar next door in the same strip mall, the Amber Inn. Just for grins, we ask one of the old-timers nursing a beer what he thought of the "marijuana bar" next door.
"It doesn't bother me," he says. "Why would it?"