Florida Bong Ban Goes Up in Smoke

PHOTO: Jay Work, founder of the Florida Smoke Shop Association, hired lobbyists to stop a Florida law that would have banned the sale of pipes.

A law that takes effect on July 1 in Florida was supposed to outlaw the sale of pipes -- all of them.

As initially drafted, House Bill 49, would have pried all manner of pipes from the hands of all manner of people -- the stoner in his dorm room, the crack head on the corner, even grandpa in his rocker.

"I'm disappointed in the ultimate outcome that passed out of the legislature and went to the governor," said Democrat state Rep. Darryl Rouson, who wrote and sponsored the bill. "The original bill would have banned and prohibited the retail sale of pipes."

Rouson knows what everyone who has ever entered a head shop knows. Despite those "for tobacco use only" signs hanging over the water pipes, virtually no one is smoking tobacco out of a 4-foot glass bong.

"Everybody accepts that the retailer knows what's really being smoked out of bongs, water pipes, hash pipes and crack pipes, and it's not tobacco," Rousson said. "We may not be able to eradicate drug usage but we can certainly make it less convenient than walking across the street to a minimart, gas station or head shop."

"When was the last time you walked into someone's home and on the coffee table or credenza there was a bong, and someone asked you if you'd like to smoke some tobacco," he asked.

A Florida without pipes nearly became a reality. Earlier this year a state appellate court upheld a 2010 law, also sponsored by Rousson, requiring that a shop's income could not come from more than the 25 percent sale of pipes.

By March, Rousson had a draft of another bill, banning all pipe sales, and enough members in both houses of the state legislature to guarantee its passage.

And then Jay Work got involved.

Work, a 51-year-old self-described "pipe peddler" owns four shops in Broward and Palm Beach County. He organized a group of store owners to fight the 2010 bill in the courts, but when he learned of the planned banned he knew he had to take action to stop it.

"I'm a pipe salesman, that's it. This bill would have put me and 390 of the other 400 store owners out of business and lots of people out of work," Work said.

"I don't sell drugs, I don't sell pipes to people who say they want to do drugs. If someone mentions the word bong, I kick them out of the store," he said.

Work initially planned to fight any new law again in court, but an attorney told him it wasn't a lawyer he needed to hire, it was a lobbyist.

Work organized the other store owners into the Florida Smoke Shop Association and raised more than $100,000 to pay for lobbyists.

With each successive visit to the capitol, lobbyists representing the group were able to chip away more at the proposed ban, including a Senate amendment that would exclude wood and meerschaum pipes.

Rouson says he agreed to those concessions and was willing to make sure "grandpa could continue smoking his corncob pipe."

But, eventually two House members who had supported the ban told Rousson they would no longer vote for it. A new version of the bill, originating in the Senate, and essentially affirming the law already on the books prohibiting stores from "knowingly or willingly" selling pipes for illegal drug use passed in both chambers.

"It costs a lot of money to play with the big boys," Work says of his first foray into underbelly of politics. "It's a game and the only way to play is with money."

News of the potential July 1 ban on pipes, and devices sold as "pipes," has spread faster and more widely than the truth that the ban was actually quashed.

"We want our customers to know that we're still here and in business," said Work, who has seen an uptick in business in recent weeks as nervous customers look to buy a bong before the ban goes into effect. "But we might not tell them we're not going anywhere until after July 1."

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