Drugs, not guns, may be the ultimate undoing of the controversial downtown nightclub Last Call.
The state's top alcoholic beverage regulator on Friday refused to renew the state liquor license of Last Call, 729 N.H., after finding evidence of "consistent use of illegal substances" in the club.
"The Licensee and its agents/employees knew or should have known that illegal substances were being used on the licensed premises, but made minimal or no effort to prevent such usage," Tom Groneman, director of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control division, wrote in the ruling.
The nonrenewal may not immediately close the club. Attempts to reach Dennis Steffes, the owner of the club, were not successful. But his attorney, Dan Owen, said Steffes would appeal the ruling. It is not uncommon for the ABC to allow a club to remain open while a license issue is appealed. Owen has said a full appeal process may take two years or more to work its way through the courts.
The ABC reviewed the Last Call's license at the request of Lawrence City Hall leaders. City attorneys earlier this month presented evidence to the ABC alleging drug use, multiple weapons violations, and signs of gang activity were happening inside or near the club.
The nightclub has been the subject of intense public scrutiny after police confiscated several illegal handguns - including assault rifles - from the city parking lot outside the club. Seven shots also were fired inside the club in May 2006, sending hundreds of patrons fleeing to the street.
But Groneman made a point in his ruling to stress that the ABC's ruling wasn't because guns were found outside the club. He said state law does not allow the ABC to hold a club responsible for actions that happen outside the club on property that the owner has no control over.
City Manager David Corliss said that was the only disappointing part of the ABC's ruling. He said the city has contended that clubs should be held responsible for activities outside their businesses, if the establishment is significantly causing or attracting the problems.
What the ABC did seize upon was evidence that marijuana usage was frequent in the club. Specifically mentioned in the ruling were allegations that marijuana was smoked in the presence of security personnel, and that a man who appeared to be a Last Call bartender was seen by an undercover police officer snorting white powder in the men's bathroom.
The ABC also found evidence that the club was obstructing justice by alerting patrons that police officers were entering the club.
But Groneman said the evidence did not support any allegations of gang violence occurring inside the club.
City commissioners said they were generally pleased with the ruling.
"It was the right decision, but it doesn't give us as much leverage as we would have liked," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said.
City Commissioner Mike Amyx, though, said he thinks the city should be open to requesting similar hearings by the ABC on other clubs in the future.
"If problems arise, I most definitely will look at this as an option," Amyx said.