There are two sides to every story. That’s true even of cannabis legalization.
While ending arrests for adult marijuana possession is certainly a good thing, legalization itself is a mixed bag. Among the consequences of bringing the culture of cannabis out of the underworld and into the light is a certain bureaucratic regimentation. All at once, by-the-book guys in suits are in charge.
This seems an almost inevitable outcome when the state is suddenly enforcing stringent rules on what, for decades, had been an outlaw subculture. In Washington state, the legalization story plays itself out through characters like local pub owner Frankie Schnarrs.
Frankie’s isn’t like other bars. But then again, Frankie isn’t like other bar owners.
What had been known as Frankie’s Sports Pub in Olympia, Washington, recently lost its liquor license for allowing patrons to smoke marijuana as they enjoyed a beer and a game of billiards. Washington state’s brand of cannabis legalization, you see, doesn’t allow on-site consumption — especially in places which also serve alcohol.
Schnarrs doesn’t like being told what to do with his own bar and his own friends, so he continued allowing his friends and patrons to toke up right at their tables in the pub. And that’s why the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board pulled his liquor license.
But one thing’s just not negotiable with Schnarrs. Nobody’s going to tell him how to operate his bar exactly the way he wants. “They can take my liquor license and shove it,” he said.
Frankie’s Sports Pub became a private club. Friends of Frankie’s operates with an all-volunteer staff. Schnarrs told state regulators they can go to hell. “Get off my property,” he said to them.
Stoners are polite people, according to Frankie. “And they spend money,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “After they start smoking they may not drink as much. But they sure do eat.”
Ten years ago, the state said people were no longer allowed to smoke tobacco in bars. Frankie resisted that, too. That’s when he first turned his upstairs bar into a private club to get around the restrictions.
When Washington voters chose marijuana legalization in 2012, Frankie was totally onboard. To Schnarrs, if weed was really legal — and if the state was going to regulate it similarly to alcohol, which was the promise at the time — then it just made sense that people should be able to smoke it in his bar.
Turns out the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) took quite a dim view of that. They pointed at SB 5052, a law passed by the Washington Legislature to implement I-502, which was the legalization measure approved by voters. According to the rules decreed by the politicians at the State Capitol, “It is unlawful for any person to conduct or maintain a marijuana club.”
Schnarrs got fined $500 last year for allowing people to smoke pot in his bar. He refused to pay it. The LCB then taped a sign to his front door saying his liquor license was suspended for five days.
Frankie paid about the same amount of attention to the liquor license suspension as he had to the fine — and that was very close to none at all. He continues to both sell alcohol, and to allow people to smoke cannabis. The way he sees it, it’s his damned bar.
Schnarrs is the opposite of a rule-following conformist. Practically every other bartender in the state fell into line when the legalization rules came down from on high. No marijuana was going to be smoked in any bar that wanted to keep its liquor license. Schnarrs was having none of that.
“Any other bar owner reaches in his pocket and says “Thank you. Thanks for checking on my business,” Schnarrs told us. “That’s because they fear their government. I don’t fear my government.”
If things don’t make sense to Frankie — especially when it comes to his bar and his business — he doesn’t see much reason to do them. That includes telling people they can’t smoke weed when they are Friends of Frankie’s.
The law, however, says you can only smoke weed in private. “At all the administrative hearings I’ve gone to, they say ‘private’ is in your home,” Schnarrs told us when we stopped by his bar.
One of the early public information pieces about legalization posed the question: “If you bought a gram of marijuana, where could you smoke it?” The official answer provided was “Almost nowhere.” Frankie keeps an enlarged copy of that on his wall, just for anybody who wonders why he’s here.
That absence of a place to smoke didn’t just represent a dumb rule to Frankie. With the advent of legalization, it also represented a business opportunity. He started letting people smoke marijuana in his bar, if they’d pay a $5 daily membership fee, or buy a year’s membership for $45.
“There is no violation of the Liquor Board’s rules,” Frankie said. “It’s all in their heads.”
Friends of Frankie’s is still accepting new members.
“We’re actually doing pretty well,” Frankie told us. “But right now, everybody’s living in fear. They’re afraid to come in here, because they’re afraid of the law. The Liquor Board comes in here and acts like a bunch of idiots when I’m not here. And they’re scared.”
It’s intentional on the Liquor Board’s part, according to Schnarrs. “I’m suing them for harassment. It’s crazy!”
“I think people should fight for their rights,” Frankie said, looking me straight in the eye. “Do not be afraid of the government. You’ll be a slave to your government if you are.”
“People have just got to be people,” Frankie said. “If you get up every day just to support your government, you’re gonna end up with nothing.”
Frankie sees hope in the younger generation.
So, is there any escape from this blandly gray society of conformists who live in fear of their government and its overbearing rules for marijuana legalization? Definitely, according to Frankie.
“This younger generation, these kids are starting to wake up and figure it out,” Schnarrs told us. “You know why? They are tired of living in fear. This is a different fear than Mom or Dad — they’re being shot and killed. They want to be able to be secure. More power to them.”
We asked Frankie if he had any advice for the younger people he admires.
“If you’re doing something right, believe in yourself,” Schnarrs responded. Don’t let the government tell you you’re doing it wrong.”