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Florida’s new bong bill is business as usual 

Thanks to a last-minute amendment, smoke shop owners shouldn’t experience much blowback from new law

With all the buzz surrounding the so-called “Bong Ban” that went into effect July 1, stoners have been freaking out. It’s OK, guys. Go back to your Adventure Time marathon. While you were lounging in your beanbag chairs, waiting for the brownies to kick in, Jay Work, founder of the Florida Smoke Shop Association, was hard at work fighting the state legislature.

Though marijuana continues to be illegal in the state of Florida, smoke shops – that is, stores that sell pipes, water bongs and other smoking paraphernalia – are completely legal as long as 75 percent of their products come from the sale of tobacco-related products. Their merchandise must be labeled “for tobacco use only,” and if hooligan potheads use said merchandise for smoking illegal substances, they’re the ones who are held accountable for it. But the state – one state legislator, Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), in particular – wants the shops to bear some of the legal burden as well.

In December of last year, Florida House members went to work drafting a bill to outlaw the sale of “metal, wooden, acrylic, glass, stone, plastic … and ceramic smoking pipes,” as well as “water pipes … air-driven pipes” and bongs. House Bill 49 contained all the bells and whistles needed to effectively shut down Florida’s smoke-shop industry overnight. The only types of pipes allowed to be sold under the bill would have to be made of clay, corncob, meerschaum or briar. Retailers caught selling prohibited pipes would be slapped with a first-degree misdemeanor upon first offense. Subsequent violations would result in stiffer penalties and could eventually result in felony charges.

“Rather than just regulating them, let’s just ban them,” bill sponsor Rouson, a self-described recovering addict, told the press at the time. “If we can make people drive to Georgia and Alabama and South Carolina to get fireworks, they can drive to get these utensils of death.”

The bill gained momentum in the House in spring and was soon joined by its Senate counterpart, SB 1140. The bills passed the General Assembly on April 26. It’s one of the most recent attempts to make it harder for smoke shops to sell objects that people may use to consume illegal substances – in 2009, another bill (also sponsored by Rouson) proposed a new tax on glass pipes that would be used to fund drug-treatment programs. That bill didn’t pass, but Rouson was successful in helping to get a law passed that would require that the state’s smoke shops prove that 75 percent of sales were made from sale of tobacco products – only 25 percent could be from the sale of pipes and bongs. Obviously, winning that fight didn’t satisfy Rouson, as his 2013 bill sought to criminalize the sale of virtually all smoking paraphernalia that are the bread and butter of a lot of small shops in the state.

But smoke shop owners – known to be pretty reticent about discussing their businesses or rocking the boat when it comes to raising government ire – weren’t going to just let themselves be legislated out of business. Jay Work, owner of four Grateful J’s stores in South Florida, helped organize Florida smoke shop owners, vendors and glass blowers to form an organization called the Florida Smoke Shop Association. It quickly gained the support of more than 70 small businesses (including the four local Pipe Dreams shops, and Orlando stores Mystik and New Galaxy Gifts) that helped raise thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer and lobby against the state’s proposed anti-bong bill.

And here’s where the anticlimactic part of the story comes into play: Though when the bill first passed everyone from the Huffington Post to the Colbert Report noted that Florida had allegedly banned bongs, the Florida Smoke Shop Association’s work managed to squeeze in a single amendment that took the teeth out of the bill before it was signed by Gov. Rick Scott on June 5.

The amendment specifies that the sale of such products is only illegal if retailers sell “knowingly and willfully” for the purpose of illegal drug use – which is exactly the gray-area business model under which smoke shop owners have always operated. So business as usual, save for this costly hiccup?

“A lot of stuff hasn’t really changed with the new law,” Work says. That hasn’t stopped the hysteria, though: “I’m answering a ton of phone calls, text messages and Facebook messages from misinformed people,” he says. “The media is not helping. My mom called me this morning and told me the news was reporting that pipes were illegal.”

They’re not. Whew. Pass the Combos.

Florida Bong Bill

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