PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Lights dim. A white-haired man of perhaps 50 approaches the stage. He’s wearing a blue suit jacket, open-neck shirt, black leather loafers and sunglasses, indoors, at night. He’s got the Sinatra panache down.
Then, the voice, a rich baritone, sweeps over the audience of a couple dozen glazed and grinning pot smokers.
“Day and night, night and daaaaay,” he croons the Sinatra standard into a mic in his right hand. “Only you beneath the moon or under the sun, whether near to me or far, it’s no matter darling where you are.
“Dum dum, dum dum de-doo-dee-dum.”
The audience yelps and coos in appreciation.
This is karaoke night at Portland’s Cannabis Cafe, a combination of the bar from Cheers and a street-side pot palace in Amsterdam. It is perfectly legal in this smoky room for medical marijuana patients to burn, eat, rub, filter and roll marijuana.
There are cancer patients, AIDS patients and sufferers of smashed vertebrae and pinched nerves. There are also those who find refuge under Oregon’s “severe pain” allowance — tell a marijuana-friendly doctor you’ve got pain, and you’ve pretty much got weed.
Since the medical marijuana law’s passage in 1998, nearly 40,000 patients have gotten access.
The pot in the cafe is brought in by patients or donated by growers. Money doesn’t change hands unless it’s to buy a sandwich or coffee. The price of admission: a $20 monthly charge and a $5 door fee.
The cafe has farmer’s markets of donated weed-laden goodies, a weekly comedy show and even an employees’ night. On Thursdays, it’s karaoke. An ill-lit stage catches an occasional cloud of puffy white smoke blown from a pipe or a bong or a vaporizer.
The Sinatra crooner, unlike many tonight, has got the goods.
The rest of the evening will be spent alternatively cringing and clapping at the cluster of medical marijuana users who make it their business to be at the cafe when karaoke kicks off at 7 p.m.
From table to table, the stories pour out of them. Most declined to give their names to The Associated Press.
Teresa Sheffer was hit by a train while driving in Alto, Mich. It broke every major bone on her right side and left her with damage to her spine. Now her pain sometimes gets so severe it forces her to huddle in her house, alone.
But sitting six paces from the stage with a pipe in front of her and a thick pinch of locally grown pot packed into her friend’s bong, she’s relaxed. If there is a point to the Cannabis Cafe, it is to give people who smoke pot a place to do it together.
“It’s a family here,” Sheffer said. “You see other people with the same problems, but it’s not a hospital. It’s a reason to get out of the house so you’re not just a hermit in the dark with pain pills.”
To Sheffer, smoking marijuana softens the dull aches and sharp pangs of pain she still experiences. Others enduring chemotherapy say it alleviates their nausea. Marijuana at the Cannabis Cafe is a sleep aid, an appetite stimulator and a headache reliever.
Toward the back of the cafe on a couch dug into a little nook under a billiard lamp, Joe Winn, 30, leans into a bong, takes a giant drag, holds it and exhales. He comes here regularly, is in fact a volunteer for the place, and likes the crush of activity when people stream in.
Three feet away, a man who would only be identified as “Redeye” hauls out a 6-foot plastic bong he nicknamed “The Staleblazer,” a play on Portland’s NBA team and the stale smoke that accumulates from the water chamber to mouthpiece.
A few minutes later, he’s up on stage, doing a muddled rendition of Sublime’s “Two Joints.” His thick, red dreadlocks bounce off his back, giving the impression of a Rastafarian leprechaun doll being shaken by a child.
But he, like everyone who performs, gets the crowd’s “wooo!” of approval.
The cafe doesn’t need any special license to operate. The impetus for starting the cafe was President Barack Obama‘s 2009 pledge to soften the federal stance on medical marijuana.
A year ago, owner Madeline Martinez brought in a pair of local police officers to tour the cafe as a sign that the place was more than a marijuana speakeasy. She said they were polite.
The place isn’t turning a profit yet. Martinez thinks that within a few years, Oregon will legalize a drug that already enjoys near-legal status and that’s when the real money will roll in.
Think of it, she says: Movie theaters, bars, hotels and, maybe, a taxi service, all catering to marijuana smokers.
But for now, it’s all donated weed and free music and a prominent budget deficit for the state of Oregon — $3.5 billion in all — that Martinez insists could be ameliorated by the sale and taxation of cannabis.
The mindset at the cafe is a blend of avid horticulture, sharing-is-caring communalism and good old-fashioned West Coast anti-authoritarianism.
It is also, however, just a karaoke club in the Pacific Northwest. Replace the bongs and pipes with martini stems and Tom Collins glasses and it would be nearly indistinguishable from any other bar.
“Coming up on stage, we’ve got our own Supremes. Come on up here ladies,” an emcee laughs into the microphone. A minute later, he is replaced on stage by three women their 50s, each in a feather boa, singing, with moderate difficulty but not much concern, 1964’s “Baby Love.”
Melody Reid, one of the few in the cafe who chose not to sing, says she would frequent bars in her younger days before thyroid cancer and a gastric pacemaker, and that she grew tired of the constant pick-up attempts by stumbling drunks.
“I’ve been to bars, had them just crawling all over you,” she says with a laugh, between pulls off a petite green pipe. “This is much more relaxed.
“And stoners,” she says, “are way better karaoke singers than drinkers anyway.”