It’s the fish tank featuring a colorful reef made of glass marijuana pipes that ultimately sets the Speakeasy Vape Lounge apart from any other strip-mall bar and confirms what it really is: one of the United States’ only legal pot clubs.
The fact that it and a few dozen like it already exist in Colorado was all but lost in a recent fight over whether the state would become the first to regulate such establishments, underscoring the patchwork approach that legal weed states have taken in sorting out where it’s okay to consume pot in public.
Colorado allows marijuana clubs, but state lawmakers ultimately decided against a plan to regulate them statewide. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper warned that passing the measure could invite a federal crackdown.
The capital city of Denver, meanwhile, has approved but not yet enacted so-called "social use" of marijuana at places like coffee shops or yoga studios.
With no other weed state opting to regulate clubs or Amsterdam-style coffee shops, the Speakeasy Vape Lounge in Colorado Springs stands as one of a very few regulated marijuana clubs anywhere in the U.S. And its home city doesn’t allow recreational pot retail sales and might shut places like this down.
For now, a few regulars come to socialize, shoot pool and smoke concentrated marijuana, using special water pipes designed for a process called "dabbing," a reference to how little marijuana is needed to produce the desired effect.
Speakeasy serves only food and water. No alcohol is allowed. Members must bring their own weed and pay a slight membership fee, about $25 a month, for the privilege of smoking pot with fellow marijuana users.
"I walk here twice a day to smoke," says Linda Wood, 59, a club member who started using pot for pain relief after a hip-replacement surgery.
"I come to the club to consume because my apartments don’t allow it. Plus, there’s a lot of kids running around, and I’d rather be safe," Wood says with a shrug before turning to her pipe and taking a long drag of concentrated marijuana. Soft rock plays in the background, and a muted TV shows CNN.
Speakeasy is a legitimate establishment in every way. It has a license and pays local taxes, and the signs out front look like pretty much any other bar except for the warning "DAB AT YOUR OWN RISK."
Its future is tenuous, though. Since Colorado has no statewide regulations for pot clubs, it is unclear whether the clubs can also sell food and alcohol, or even allow patrons to smoke inside.
From Denver to mountain resorts like Aspen and Breckenridge, police wrote nearly 800 citations for the new crime of public consumption in 2014, the first year recreational sales began.
Speakeasy owner Jaymen Johnson is frank about the nascent pot-club business.
"It’s not sustainable," says Johnson, a former dispensary manager who opened Speakeasy in 2013 after going to marijuana meet-ups and concluding his buddies needed a permanent place to get high.
His club has only a few dozen members, scraping by selling fish sticks and fries, along with tickets for music acts. The video game lounge in back sells its own memberships, offering a male stoner’s dream of playing video games and smoking pot for hours on end.
But Johnson says he’s barely paying the bills. A big item is missing from his menu: marijuana.
Marijuana clubs can't sell marijuana
Colorado says its pot retailers can’t allow on-site consumption. The result is clubs that provide "free" marijuana in exchange for donations, though those clubs are frequently raided by police and aren’t keen on media attention.
Those club owners may be wise to lie low. A decades-old network of outdoor marijuana "smoke shacks" dotting the Breckenridge ski area were famously torn down by the resort in 2014 after they appeared on an episode of "Inside Edition." And in the Denver suburb of Englewood, city council members were apparently taken by surprise by 2016 news reports that the city had licensed a pot club. They then voted to allow no more clubs.
Pot clubs in other states are just as precarious. The only state to allow on-site marijuana consumption where the drug is sold, Alaska, has yet to approve rules for how those "tasting rooms" would work.
Ballot measures in two states that passed recreational marijuana last year, California and Maine, specifically authorize pot clubs. Those states, too, have yet to approve rules for how those clubs or gatherings would work.
Speakeasy members know they’re unusual, and they’re not sure their club will survive long enough to see pot clubs gain wider acceptance.
"It’s kind of a nice place to have somewhere to consume, having a safe place where you know everything’s aboveboard," says Alaura Zortman, a 27-year-old dog trainer and tattoo artist who frequently stops by Speakeasy.
"It needs to be something that’s addressed. A lot of times it’s like, ’Oh, well. This is a drug den.’ ... But it’s really not like that," Zortman says.