Ex-cop speaks out on behalf of cannabis clubs 


click to enlarge Owner Phil McDonald in a back booth at his Bikini Bar. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Owner Phil McDonald in a back booth at his Bikini Bar.

As Colorado Springs city officials ponder the future of cannabis clubs, an argument that's often floated for doing away with them is that they make bad neighbors: Marijuana lures an undesirable crowd that causes a ruckus and disturbs the peace.

Not so, says Phil McDonald, owner of the Springs Bikini Bar, which shares a wall with the Speakeasy Vape Lounge. Another club, The Lazy Lion, which was raided by federal agents late last month, is on the same block.

McDonald, a former marshal with the Colorado Springs Police Department who's involved in local Republican politics, says that it took some prodding before he agreed to take over the bar on East Bijou Street from his sister and brother-in-law. His hands were already pretty full with four other local businesses and two young sons. But the biggest cause for pause was the bar's neighbor.

"I used to be real anti-marijuana," McDonald explains. He's sitting in a booth next to some old pinball machines in the back of his beach-themed bar, where a bikini-clad woman slings drinks and a bloody boxing match plays on the TV.

"When I was an officer, we'd go to these, for lack of a better term, real hellhole kind of places, [with] grows in these dark basements and everyone smoking dope, and there was always porn. It was a real mess."

When he finally decided to take ownership of the bar late last year, McDonald thought he would just steer clear of his cannabiz neighbors. Live and let live, he thought. But after a while, a buddy convinced him to go over and check them out.

"I was extremely surprised," McDonald remembers thinking on his first trip next door. "It's very nice in there, and you see every walk of life: retired military, husbands and wives. And Jay is running the place just like I'm running mine — on the up and up."

Jay is Jaymen Johnson, owner of the Speakeasy, who says he spent a decade working as a bouncer in downtown nightclubs and another working in medical marijuana. He opened the Speakeasy three years ago with just a thousand dollars on hand, he says. Each week he'd buy a new piece of furniture with the money he'd made that week. Now, he claims to enjoy a loyal customer base and operates what seems to be one of the most popular cannabis clubs in town.

"There's this misconception in most people's minds that we're going to be a folding-chair operation," Johnson says, while torching a dab for one of his patrons. "When they see something as legit as this, we love to see those misconceptions wash away."

Legitimacy is a slippery thing for cannabis clubs, which operate in a gray area of the law. Generally speaking, they are membership-based clubs that allow for on-site cannabis consumption. Patrons may bring their own weed or reimburse the club for some of its stash. Attorneys, law enforcement and policymakers seem to agree that thanks to semantics, the clubs are perfectly legal, even in a town that has banned recreational sales such as Colorado Springs.

The biggest distinction amongst cannabis clubs is the quantity they choose to offer. Some, like the Speakeasy and Studio A64, claim to offer only single servings to their members. No pot leaves the club. Others allegedly offer ounces to customers, who are welcome to take home whatever they do not consume on-site. That practice pisses off local medical dispensary owners, who say those clubs are operating as de facto dispensaries.

It also pisses off other club owners like Johnson, who insist that a cannabis club should be to a dispensary what a bar is to a liquor store.

"I may be an oddity, but I want regulation," Johnson says. "I've been asking [City Council to], 'License me, tax me, inspect me.'"

As Colorado Springs' six-month moratorium on new cannabis-related business licenses nears an end, City Council is tackling a policy question it has been promising to address for years: What to do about cannabis clubs?

Earlier this month, the city's Planning Commission drafted three ordinances to consider before making a recommendation to City Council: two that would create a Marijuana Consumption Club license and relegate clubs to industrial zones, and a third that would ban clubs altogether. The Commission has recommended the third option.

The proposal, pushed primarily by Councilor Don Knight, is scheduled for a first reading this week and a final decision on March 22. Upon its likely passage, the ordinance will prohibit the opening of any new cannabis clubs; close any that opened after September 2015; and allow clubs that opened prior to Sept. 2015 to operate through 2021, at which time they would have to shut down.

"I've invited all [Council members] to visit the Speakeasy," Johnson says. "We're providing a service to the community just like Phil [McDonald] is. Only difference is you don't get those ego and anger issues you see with alcohol."

McDonald now believes that when it comes to intoxication, weed and booze are pretty much apples and oranges.

"When customers from next door come over here and they've smoked a little bit, they're good as gold," he says. "They're chill. They just want to watch some TV, listen to music and just relax. Now with alcohol, that's when people act up, get rowdy, want to fight and all that."

So if what Johnson serves his customers is more mellow than what's on tap here at the Bikini Bar, McDonald sees no reason to shut down the Speakeasy. In fact, why treat them any differently?

"We're right next to each other, both trying to run our businesses by the book as straight as possible," McDonald says. "The city is trying to reinvent the wheel with this. I think we need to take these liquor laws we've developed over what, like a hundred years, and just double it over onto the marijuana industry."

McDonald laughs when he thinks back on how his opinion about marijuana has changed in the years since he was a police officer.

"I mean, I'm a conservative guy. But the last four months have been eye-opening. I've only been to [the Speakeasy] so I don't know about all of them, but I don't want to see Jay shut down. He cares about his customers, he cares about his industry and the future of his industry. Personally, I'd want to see Council work with him to figure out, 'Hey, how should we run these clubs so we become the icon, the pinnacle here in Colorado Springs?'"


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