In November, citizens will go to the polls in budget-poor California to vote on legalizing, regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana. The attempt comes 14 years after the state became the first to legalize medical marijuana (which 13 other states have since done as well).
But in the Sunshine State, legislators are trying to make it harder for any Floridians to smoke pot — at least if they like to smoke it paperless. In the process, the lawmakers may knock out an entire industry.
The move is being led, once again, by St. Petersburg House Democrat Darryl Rouson, a former crack addict who has made it part of his mission in life to eliminate drug paraphernalia from being sold in Pinellas County and now the whole state of Florida. The current proposal moving quickly through the House would forbid Florida retailers from selling specific pipes (listed in the bill as water pipes, carburetor tubes and devices, chamber pipes, bongs and chillums) unless 75 percent of a store's annual gross revenues comes from the sale of cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products.
Rouson says that the bill's restrictions are similar to how restaurants are zoned. "We say to restaurants that are licensed to sell liquor, you better not be a disguised package liquor store, and to make sure we say 51 percent of your sales better be food," he says, speaking from Tallahassee last week. "So if we're going to let these shops sell tobacco pipes, but you see no tobacco, why not have the same presumptions?"
The owners of head shops throughout the state are terrified that if the bill makes its way through the legislature, it will put them out of business. Julie Osteen is with YB Normal in Palm Harbor. Like other such storeowners, she believes the legislation is focused on crack cocaine users, which she says are definitely not her clientele.
"Crack-addicted people cannot afford the type of artistic glass that we sell, nor are they interested in the fact that they are art pieces," she says. "They are looking for their next fix and do not care how they get it."
A host of shop owners calling themselves the Smoke Shop Coalition has organized in the past few weeks, led by Jay Work, who owns Grateful J's in Broward County. Aided by PR consultant Bianca Hennings, the group has created a website (killbill187.com) to coordinate resistance.
Hennings says if the legislation passes, it will drive customers to purchase such paraphernalia through the Internet.
Rouson has a well-known history of trying to rid the land of bongs and their ilk. Last year he introduced a bill to place a 25 percent surtax on all the aforementioned pipes, but it died in committee. In 2006, while president of the Pinellas County NAACP, he successfully lobbied the County Commission to pass an ordinance restricting the sale of so-called "drug paraphernalia." And in 2004 he got into a well-publicized dispute with the owner of the Purple Haze Tobacco and Accessories Shop on 34th St S. which culminated in a charge against Rouson of misdemeanor trespassing. (The judge withdrew adjudication on the charge.)
Retailers are now targeting the state Senate, where a companion bill (SB 366) sponsored by Jacksonville Republican Stephen Wise awaits.
They intend to push senators to reject the bill for economic considerations, contending that the removal of such shops could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs.
William Chavis is the owner of Hot Wax in Ybor City. He says if the bill passes it will make his business much more challenging. "The accessories are something that I rely on to keep the store open," he says, "because I also sell records." And about Representative Rouson he says, "He misused these products in the past. So because of this, he feels no one can use them properly. I find that unfortunate for businesses."
Merchants across the state may find out just how unfortunate in a few weeks.