SOUTH HAVEN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Less than a mile from the shores of Lake Michigan, a bar and grill that has been a local staple for years is adding a new attraction.
Curve Inn is allowing marijuana use during private events on Saturday nights that began in January, according to owner Pat Clausen.
A self-described child of the ’60s and ’70s, Clausen said she smoked marijuana “back in the day” but quit when she went to work as a police dispatcher.
“Because you don’t take money to enforce laws and then break them,” she said to MLive.com.
Clausen worked for law enforcement agencies in Michigan and in Hawaii, she said, declining to give specifics of the departments, and dispatched plenty of calls for violence related to alcohol and other drugs during her 14 years as a dispatcher. She said she didn’t hear about the same types of incidents involving marijuana.
Clausen, who is in her 60s, said she believes it will be hard for some people to change their opinions about marijuana.
“It was breaking the law then, now it’s not,” she said.
The bar began hosting cannabis club events in late January on Saturday nights beginning at 9 p.m.
During one recent event, smoke hung in the air and most tables were filled with people as a slow reggae beat washed over the socializing crowd. Patrons played pool and ordered drinks like the green colored “liquid marijuana” (which contains no actual marijuana) on special while they puffed on joints, glass pipes and vaporizer devices.
“It feels kind of weird but it feels good,” James Buckley of South Haven said. “I feel potheads or pot has been pushed to the back.”
He has attended a couple cannabis events at the bar and said it has been a laid-back and friendly atmosphere.
“I’ve seen nothing but smiling faces,” he said.
Bags containing marijuana and rolling papers sat on the table nearby on top of Keno sheets and a basket of fried food from the bar, as he ashed off the ember of the joint into a pie tin used as an ash tray.
He went outside to have a cigarette where the wind was blowing and a few people were seated on a covered patio, warming themselves by a brick pizza oven and sharing marijuana.
“I never thought the day would come when I could come to the bar and smoke weed with my friends,” Jessica Scherer said. “It’s a very awesome place. We love Pat.”
The business has been around in some form for 79 years, Clausen said. She bought it 12 years ago with her sister, and has since bought her sister out, she said.
The tobacco smoking ban, which prohibited tobacco smoking in Michigan bars starting in 2010, changed the bar industry, she said. Competition from brewpubs and wineries is increasing.
“Every time you add something like that, the pie gets smaller,” Clausen said.
People coming to bars after smoking pot is nothing new, she said. Now that it is allowed inside, customers from age 21 to 80 have joined in, she said. Many are locals and some are new faces, she said.
“Our Saturday nights have been pretty quiet, so when we saw this, we saw an opportunity,” Clausen said.
The bar charges $5 at the door for a membership to the cannabis club, and does not allow sales of marijuana or any other illegal activities, she said.
The move comes in the months after Michigan voters passed a measure to legalize the recreational use and possession of marijuana for adults age 21 and older. The business is part of a wave of others embracing the loosening climate in Michigan.
Clausen said she heard about a cannabis club opening at Rupert’s Brew House in Kalamazoo and spoke to South Haven Township officials and law enforcement officials before deciding to host the marijuana events.
Many people have thanked her for providing a welcoming space, she said, though others have expressed they will not be back because she allows marijuana use.
Sales of marijuana used for recreational purposes are currently illegal in Michigan, because no businesses are currently licensed to sell recreational marijuana.
Sales of marijuana for recreational use are currently not allowed in Michigan, because no businesses have been licensed by the state to sell marijuana at this time. Sales of marijuana are not allowed at Curve Inn, Clausen said.
South Haven Chief of Police Natalie Thompson said Clausen asked for her input about how to hold the events legally, so Thompson began her own research to see what was allowed and not allowed under the new law and conferred with the Van Buren County Prosecutor’s Office about it. The city police department also provides policing for South Haven Township.
“I think it’s a bit of a gray area,” Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford said. He said no specific violations related to cannabis clubs had been brought to his attention as of late.
“Until somebody investigates and determines a state law is violated, one we can prosecute, there’s not much we can do,” he said.
Thompson said the bar closing its doors means it is a private event, noting a conversation she had with the prosecutor.
The chief also reached out the Michigan Liquor Control Commission and the Attorney General’s Office to ask for clarification, she said. A representative at the MLCC told her the agency is investigating the possibility that a businesses could be in violation for using a liquor license during private hours, Thompson said.
In Kalamazoo, Rupert’s Brew House, meanwhile, has expanded its marijuana events to several nights per week. The club has hosted live jazz, stand-up comedy, video game night, and a Super Bowl party, all allowing marijuana use, owner Mark Rupert said.
The brew house, open since 2013, will allow patrons to consume marijuana on-site during private events, Mark Rupert said.
Police officers came to check out one of the gatherings on Jan. 13, and Rupert walked a police officer through the establishment.
“Several people were drinking beer and smoking marijuana,” a police report written by Sgt. Kristie Hofer states. She wrote she did not see anyone smoking cigarettes. She and another officer said they smelled marijuana upon approaching the bar.
The cannabis club events have helped the business maintain revenue during the Polar Vortex, sometimes drawing hundreds of paying club members per night, Rupert said. He said he thinks they will draw more people once the weather is nice.
However, Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Spokesman David Harns said a business operating like Rupert’s Brew House could face a violation for using its public liquor license to hold private events and could face a liquor control commission hearing. No public violation had been filed against Rupert’s as of late, he said.
“A brewery may not act as a private club unless they surrender their liquor license to the Commission or put it into escrow,” Harns told MLive in January. A licensee could face penalties including fines, suspension or revocation depending on the situation, Harns has said.
Another Van Buren County establishment, Harley’s Gentlemen’s Club, in Decatur, is advertising cannabis culture night soon. The “BYOBud” event is advertised as private, with $10 entry, and for ages 21 plus.
“BYOBud, selling of cannabis on premises is prohibited,” an advertisement for the event reads, in part.
Decatur Chief of Police Tom VanDerWoude said the department was “very aware” of the advertised event planned at Harley’s Gentlemen’s Club. He said he would not answer specific questions about the event being advertised.
“We fully expect all of our liquor license holders to follow all the rules set forth by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, and to follow the Public Health Act / Code. We regularly do liquor inspections in our community and we will continue to do so,” he said in an email message.
“We also fully expect everyone to follow the law in the state of Michigan,” he said.
After Michigan voters approved a measure to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Michigan, the Michigan State Police said the state’s criminal justice community would need to implement new policies and procedures that account for the legal use and possession of marijuana by persons age 21 and older, and will consult with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office to determine specific impact on existing department policies and procedures, and will then train our members to ensure the new law is applied appropriately.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office said a determination about the legality of the activities in question, specifically with reference to marijuana use, will likely depend on the facts of each case.
“We are working with our clients, including the Liquor Control Commission and LARA, on several issues related to marijuana use,” Michigan Attorney General’s Office Communications Director Kelly Rossman-McKinney said, after speaking with division chiefs that head up the licensing and regulation division and alcohol and gambling enforcement division.
“We have not provided advice on this issue to other law enforcement and prosecutors,” she said.
Regulators have started drafting rules for the industry.
The social clubs are among several businesses across the state embracing loosening pot regulations. While marijuana is now legal for adults to possess and use on private property, there are currently no legal ways to buy it.
Businesses across the state are working to fulfill requirements to obtain a state license to grow, process, sell, transport or test medical marijuana, though none of those businesses will be allowed to sell to the recreational market at this time. The state is working to draft rules for recreational marijuana businesses now.
Clausen said her business decision is also a statement and people will have to accept the new reality about pot in Michigan.
“It was America’s second prohibition,” she said.
At one of the private Saturday events, Clausen said she smoked a few puffs for the first time in years after a recent 17-hour shift.
“It’s legal,” she said.