The Bluebird Coffee Shop is, in some ways, just like many other eateries in Las Vegas. It’s a place where patrons can sit at the counter and enjoy a fresh-brewed cup of coffee, have a sandwich while watching TV, or log on to the Internet on one of four computers.
But for medical marijuana cardholders, it is more.
Co-owner Larry Monkarsh has created a place where patients enrolled in the Nevada Medical Marijuana Program—there are 2,247 of them as of August—can toke up in peace without being hassled or judged by those who frown upon pot smoking as a way to treat or alleviate health problems. “We want people who are sick, that get referred from their [physician] for medical marijuana, to have a place they feel comfortable coming to that isn’t stigmatized,” Monkarsh says. “We’re not an excuse to party. That’s not what we’re here for. If you have a card and are a patient in the Nevada program, this is your home, this is your club.”
The business, which opened in August, has a Compassion Club lounge, separated from the rest of the coffee shop, that is for licensed cardholders only. Inside the coffee shop itself, no trace of any marijuana use is evident, and Monkarsh has gone to great lengths to make sure that the lines are not crossed between what is allowed under the provisions of Nevada Revised Statutes 453A and illegal activities that could draw the attention of law-enforcement agencies.
“We did enough research into the Nevada 453A to understand the gist of the law,” he says. “Metro is concerned about criminal activity, and we’re very confident that there’s no criminal activity going on here. We encourage Metro to come in.” (Metro may eventually accept that invitation. Public information officer Marcus Martin, a former narcotics officer, says the coffee shop itself is a public place, which could make smoking in the Compassion Club lounge an illegal activity, even if it is separated from the rest of the business.)
Monkarsh, a general contractor by trade who has lived in Las Vegas since 1995, came up with the concept for the Bluebird after studying the growth of the medical marijuana industry. With medical marijuana legalized in Nevada in 2001, the economy taking its toll on his general contracting business and Californians voting next month on a ballot initiative to legalize pot, he decided the time was right to take advantage of the changing landscape and open the Bluebird, which is located at 2025 Paradise Road, just blocks away from the Stratosphere.
Membership to the Compassion Club is $450 per month, although there are also rates for daily or annual membership. That buys members access to lectures, events, growing seminars—Nevada law states that medical marijuana card holders can possess up to one ounce of marijuana, three mature plants and four immature plants—and cooking demonstrations.
“If you can’t afford the $450 a month, then we’ll work with you and we’ll find a way that you can manage it,” says Monkarsh, who is a medical marijuana cardholder himself. “We’re really here to help them, not exclude them. … There are a lot of perks that you can take advantage of for that money.”
For potential Compassion Club members who are not yet licensed under Nevada law, Monkarsh says the initial monthly fees go toward doctor referrals and ensuring that paperwork and application costs are filed correctly to get those who have medical reasons for needing medical marijuana the relief they are seeking, legally.
“We want to be an information-gathering zone for the medicine, and how you can obtain it and become a legal patient in the program,” he says. “And that’s really our main goal.”
There are now about a half-dozen monthly members enrolled in the Compassion Club. The Bluebird has partnered with two local dispensaries vetted by Monkarsh to make sure they meet the nonprofit standards required under the law, especially following the Sept. 8 raids of at least six dispensaries by federal agents and Metro officers.
Monkarsh wants the Bluebird to become a place where all members of the community are welcome, not just medical marijuana users. He’s installing an outdoor grill for barbecues, applying for a banquet license and has plans to host outdoor concerts.
“We really think the community events will be where a lot of our money comes from,” he says. “The Compassion Club isn’t a moneymaker. We know that. It’s not here to make money; it’s here to provide services to people.”
Monkarsh hopes to open Bluebird locations in Reno and Southern California.
“There are people out there who need help,” he says. “It’s not a joke. In mainstream society and the mainstream media, it’s kind of a chuckle; it’s not legitimized. What we’re doing here is legitimizing this movement.”