Wash. bar owner allowing pot use faces crackdown

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Jeff Call, owner of the Stonegate Pizza and Rum Bar in Tacoma, Wash., poses for a photo Thursday, April 18, 2013 with a letter he received from the city of Tacoma revoking Call’s business license because he allows customers to use vaporized marijuana upstairs in a private club area of his bar. Call filed an appeal Thursday and will continue operating his business. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE (AP) — Jeff Call knew he was pushing the envelope when he started letting people use marijuana at his rum-and-pizza joint in Tacoma.

But he didn't quite know the extent of what he was in for: the governor's office demanding state regulators do something about it, local authorities revoking his business license, and his insurance company dropping his liability policy — developments that threaten to sink his 3-year-old establishment even as he vows to fight them.

"The screws are coming down from all over," says Call, owner of Stonegate Pizza. "But we're open. Everything is still the same."

Washington and Colorado last fall became the first states to legalize marijuana for adults over 21. Both ban 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 the Stonegate and a few others have been testing the boundaries in hopes of drumming up business and making a political statement.

Call, 48, allows a medical marijuana dispensary to use space on the second floor of his brick, two-story establishment as a "vape bar," where people can use devices that "vaporize" marijuana, or heat it without burning it. That's a way to get around the state smoking ban.

The upstairs bar is set up as a private club, with a nominal fee for membership — an attempt to get around the ban on public use of pot.

Medical marijuana patients can buy hits of potent marijuana oil, but everyone else has to bring their own pot and then rent a vaporizer — an effort to evade the ban on non-licensed marijuana sales to recreational users.

Soon after an Associated Press story featured Call's bar last month, Gov. Jay Inslee's staff instructed the state's Liquor Control Board, which is devising rules for the new marijuana industry, to do something about it. The board responded by announcing that it would draft rules to require establishments with liquor licenses to ban marijuana use on site. Officials are concerned about people mixing marijuana and alcohol, especially if they're going to be driving home.

Inslee spokesman David Postman also said it's important to crack down on such establishments to demonstrate to other states, as well as the U.S. Justice Department, that Washington is implementing its new law responsibly. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the DOJ hasn't decided whether to sue in an effort to prevent the legal pot sales from ever happening.

"The law is clear on the prohibition on the consumption of marijuana in public," Postman said. "From what the Liquor Control Board tells us, that's exactly what this is."

The governor wasn't the only one concerned.

Tacoma officials sent a letter on April 9 revoking Call's business license for violating the city's nuisance ordinance, which bans marijuana gardens, dispensaries and "any place other than a private residence where cannabis is smoked or ingested."

Call filed an appeal Thursday, a day before he had been ordered to close his doors. He can continue to operate during the appeal.

His attorneys, Douglas Hiatt and Aaron Pelley, say they plan to challenge the city's nuisance ordinance. They say such local laws are barred by the state and federal Controlled Substances Acts, and cannot ban activity that is legal under state law, as they argue Call's business is.

Call is also in the market for new liability insurance, after Western Heritage Insurance Co. notified him it was canceling his policy effective May 14.

Frankie Schnarr, the owner of Frankie's Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia, another bar that allows marijuana use in a private room, is in the same boat after Western canceled his policy, too.

Call, who says his wife died of cancer 14 years ago and who lost his home to foreclosure as he tried to keep the Stonegate afloat, doesn't know how he'll pay for his legal representation. He plans some fundraisers at the bar.

"I have no idea what the road looks like for me," he said. "But it's not going to be a short road."


Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle