Frankie got around smoking law; now he offers private pot spot

Los Angeles TimesAugust 25, 2013 

US NEWS MARIJUANA-BAR 1 LA

Cassie Hickam smokes marijuana at Frankie’s Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia. State law makes it legal to use marijuana in private, so the pub’s owner, Frankie Schnarr, has designated part of his bar as private space.

JOHN GLIONNA — MCT

Olympia tavern owner Frankie Schnarr takes a long draw from his bottle of Coors Light and scans his sports bar, listening to billiard balls rattle and a pinball machine explode with points.

Suddenly, there’s that smell: musky-sweet, skunky yet somehow pleasing, an odor traditionally fraught with illegality.

Three men in jeans and sleeveless shirts shooting pool nearby fire up a small purple pipe packed with pot. They inhale deeply between shots, laughing, passing the bowl, mellowing their buzz with an occasional swig of beer.

Marijuana. Brazenly smoked in public, right there under the bar owner’s nose.

Schnarr smiles.

“You get used to the smell — it’s like the mold at your mom’s house,” he says, motioning for another Coors. “It’s strange at first, but later you realize, ‘Oh, that’s what that is.’ Some people walk in here these days and go, ‘Oh wow.’ But most walk in and say, ‘Oh wow. This is cool!’”

At Frankie’s Sports Bar and Grill on Pacific Avenue, firing up a “fatty” or a “blunt” is not just condoned — it’s welcomed. Last fall, Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use, allowing people to smoke the drug in private, but not in public places such as bars. Schnarr, 63, has found a way around that: He’s using a space in his pub he says is private.

The second floor of his sports bar — a mammoth room with TVs, card tables, 10 pool tables, four shuffleboard tables and rows of booths — is the only pub in the state to allow the practice. It’s a rarefied realm where patrons burn joints and bowls of greenish weed in a free-for-all fashion that’s still unknown in most of law-abiding America.

As state officials scramble to change the law and put a stop to Schnarr’s reefer madness, patrons such as Jason Southwick can’t believe their good fortune.

The 32-year-old unemployed landscaper takes a bud of pot from a plastic medicine vial, packs his pipe and breathes in for a prolonged moment. His friends list ways stoners and boozers handle their buzzes differently: Pot smokers don’t start fights and don’t run people over at crosswalks.

“We’re more chill,” one woman says.

Southwick tries to blow a smoke ring, but coughs instead, his breath acrid, eyes inflamed. His friends smirk: He’s broken an unwritten rule, greedily sucking in so much smoke that his lungs rebel.

He gazes up at a slow-turning ceiling fan. “Wow, man, that is strong,” he says. He walks underneath, staring quizzically. “Have you ever seen anything like this? Dude, I’ve never felt so much wind in my life.”

No one is listening.

Except Schnarr: Pot smokers such as Southwick have translated into brisk business.

“These stoners are polite people,” he said. “I haven’t heard as much ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ in my 25 years in the bar business. And they spend money. After they start smoking, they may not drink as much. But they sure do eat.”

Schnarr is a rebel with a for-profit cause.

“He likes to push the envelope,” said his lawyer, Shawn Newman. “He’s a risk-taker, a fighter. He’ll take you on.”

He’s taken on the state of Washington on two occasions, both times challenging edicts on what he can and cannot do inside his business.

In 2006, when the state banned cigarette smoking in bars, Schnarr saw his profits plummet. He tried publicity stunts and rule-bending to keep his drinking emporium afloat: bar specials, car-racing parties and waitresses in bikinis.

Then one day, he decided to read the new law. “I have a seventh-grade education,” said Schnarr, who opened his bar in 1994. “When I read something, I really got to read it hard.”

He spotted a way around the ban: He created what he called a private room on his bar’s second floor, with enhanced ventilation, and invited members (for a $10 annual fee) to puff away to their lungs’ content.

They quickly became known as “Friends of Frankie.” Because they were partaking in a private room, there was no conflict with public anti-smoking laws, Schnarr insisted. More than 10,000 people signed up and received membership cards.

The state later sued, but a judge ruled in favor of Schnarr’s private space within a public place.

In November, Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use, putting state agencies in charge of regulating its sale to anyone old enough to drink alcohol. That’s when Schnarr got busy again.

He invited pot smokers to join the cigarette-puffing “Friends of Frankie” in the same second-floor space. His list of private tokers and smokers has since grown by the hundreds, he says.

Before the pot law, business was failing. Now it’s risen 40 percent.

Schnarr’s move caught officials from Washington’s Liquor Control Board by surprise. The law forbids pot smoking in public taverns because the scientific research remains fuzzy on the health effects of the double-whammy of alcohol and marijuana, they say.

“He’s a bit of a thorn in our side,” board member Chris Marr said of Frankie. “But you have to admire his entrepreneurial spirit.”

Marr says the state plans to consult lawyers to stop patrons from getting high in Schnarr’s bar, which is down the street from the Liquor Control Board headquarters. But the bar owner’s challenge has given the board pause: “Are we doing the right thing?” Marr asked. “Should we restrict the public-place consumption of pot when we don’t do the same thing for alcohol?”

Legal experts warn the weed-smoking tiff could be repeated elsewhere.

“There are going to be more Frankies out there,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy research expert and co-author of the book “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.” “The free market is a very creative place. Any rule you come up with, entrepreneurs will find a way around it.”

Schnarr says he has a personal reason to challenge state law: He wants to leave behind a thriving business for his wife, Cheri. He points to his chest, describing his multiple heart attacks and stents, his replaced valves and diabetes. He knows his time could be fleeting.

He has no choice but to take on the authorities, he says: “I’ll find every loophole I can. If it’s legal, I’ll do it.”

He looks up, as though seeking divine inspiration.

“Hell, if they legalized prostitution, I’d build a third floor up top and have ladies working out of there faster than anybody’s business.”

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