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Smoke Shop Owners' Lobbying Takes Teeth Out Of 'Bong Ban'

Jessica Palombo

One new Florida law that took effect this week outlaws the sale of several kinds of drug paraphernalia, including smoking devices commonly referred to as bongs. But smoke shop owners say, the way the new law is phrased takes the teeth out of the legislation.

Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) has been spearheading the effort to shut down Florida’s smoke shops for years.

During the legislative session, he said, “What a hypocrisy. We live in a state where we tell kids, ‘Don’t smoke dope. Don’t smoke marijuana.’ Yet, right across the street from Gibbs High School in St. Pete is a head shop where they can buy any type of bong and water pipe there is.”

These kinds of pipes were already illegal to possess if law enforcement could tell someone intended to use them with drugs. The new law also makes it illegal to sell them, but with the same caveat – the seller must know they’ll be used to smoke drugs.  The change sent some smoke shop owners scurrying.

On Monday this week, Florida Smoke Shop Association founder Jay Work said, “Stores are running scared. There are stores that I know of that yesterday was their last day in business.”

Work owns the four South Florida locations of a chain called Grateful J’s Grateful Deadhead Shop. Work said, when Rouson filed the bill, it outright banned most pipe sales. But thanks to his group’s lobbying, he said, the new law won’t have much effect at all.  

“The law stands that you have to knowingly and willfully sell the pipes for drug use for it to be considered paraphernalia, so it is business as usual. We don’t sell our pipes for anything illegal. There is no ban on pipes,” Work said.

But can a law enforcement officer discern whether a shop owner knows someone’s buying a pipe to smoke drugs instead of tobacco? Tallahassee Police Department spokesman David Northway says he can’t divulge investigative techniques, but officers are aware of the law change.

“We fully support the laws, and we will enforce them by any means necessary,” he said.

At the Tobacco Leaf Smoke Shop in Tallahassee, foot after foot of shelving is covered in smoking devices, some of them as much as three feet tall. A sign in front of them says “Tobacco Waterpipes.” Joaquin is working the store on Monday. He’s asked that we not use his last name. He said a lot of misinformed customers have given their condolences about the shop’s imminent closure.

“They think we’re gonna have some big sale and close, but it’s not going to affect us the way they think it is…no sales. We’re just gonna keep doing what we were doing,” the shopkeeper said.

Tobacco Leaf and more than 70 other stores belong to Jay Work’s smoke shop association. The group formed in 2010 in response to another of Rouson’s bills -- one mandating only 25 percent of smoke shop revenue may come from pipe sales. That law finally went into effect early this year after the association lost a court battle.

Work said lobbying to water down the bill banning pipe sales was expensive, but the cost protected his family’s livelihood. 

Rouson could not be reached for comment.