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In Plain Sight: Head Shops

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Photo Credit: bettyx1138 via Compfight cc

As a self-proclaimed head shop aficionado, I’ve followed the transformation of the industry from hippy to hip-hop to hipster.

Medical marijuana had been decriminalized in Oregon for more than a decade when I decided to stop by my favorite venerable head shop, The Hot Box. I was curious to see how it has changed with the ever-changing state laws bouncing and misbehaving around the stalwart federal laws regarding marijuana.

Plus, they still carry Necco Wafer Fine Candy and have amazing glass art.

What is a head shop?

Officially, head shops (legally regulated as smoke shops) are retail outlets specializing in paraphernalia used for the consumption of tobacco. Marijuana, and the paraphernalia that supports it, is decreasingly illegal in most states and federally illegal everywhere.

Although all of this is subject to change with ever-changing laws, head shops do not sell products for marijuana (feel free to use finger quotes around that sentence). They certainly do not sell marijuana—they are not dispensaries.

They do sell functional glass pipes, various contraptions to adapt the flower/herb/product to put in the smoking devices, rolling papers, hookahs, electronic cigarette (e-cig or vape) devices and oils, jewelry, smell-sealing containers, munchies, incense, clothing, magazines, and herbs. Some also sell butane, whip cream chargers (nitrous oxide), detoxifiers, fake urine (strictly as a novelty item), and sex toys.

If you’re interested in the green gold rush that is marijuana, there is no better place than your friendly neighborhood head shop to get up to speed on the weed ecosystem.

In Case You're Curious: 10 Things You Might Not Have Known About Head Shops: 

1. Many old time head shop owners do not think that legalization of recreational marijuana will be good for their business.

2. As attitudes toward marijuana have changed, the strict language that head shop workers have had to adopt in the past has loosened up. It’s still best to refer to a bong as a water pipe, but you won’t be thrown out anymore if you slip and say, “bong”—especially if you have a medical marijuana card.

3. You have to be 18 years or older to enter a head shop.

4. Flavored rolling paper produced before a certain date is legal as long as it is NOT sold for tobacco use. Lavender smoking anyone?

5. Many of the glass pipes are such amazing works of art that it is nearly impossible to recognize the art as a bong. This functional glass art industry, with pieces selling for tens of thousands of dollars, has caught the eye of art collectors at the highest levels.

These pieces are called “heady."

6. Online business for head shops is growing but the inconsistent state laws and consistent federal illegality make shipping and payments tricky. The big federal bust of 2003, code named Operation Pipe Dreams, is still top of mind for this industry. Pipe dealers and artists had been operating in the gray area of legality (like today) when federal agents swooped in and arrested hundreds of pipe dealers and hauled Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) for selling pipes across state lines.

7. The electronic cigarette business (also called e-cig or vape) is enormous for head shops. It is also a huge opportunity to fill vacant strip mall spaces everywhere.

8. The e-cig industry is lobbying and scheming to avoid being regulated by the Federal Tobacco Control Act. Implementing state laws is one of the industry strategies.

9. Head shops still rely on cash because banking is federally regulated and doesn’t recognize federally illegal business transactions. There are no crisp, bright lines that separate tobacco paraphernalia from pot paraphernalia so the legality of the head shop business lives firmly in the gray area of the law.

10. Head shops are a great place to understand the vast ecosystem and opportunities around all that supports marijuana and it not marijuana.

Measuring the financial opportunity of legalizing the marijuana industry by calculating tax revenue from marijuana sales is like measuring the impact of the coffee industry by counting the beans. The opportunity to develop products and services is more mind-blowing than any effects from that smelly little weed.

Marijuana is only an ingredient for an enormous industry that hid and festered in the shadows since long before the prohibition of the 1930s. Head shop owners should be applauded for bravely and brazenly helping keep the industry alive for a time when it can bust back out of the shadows and into Wall Street and government coffers.

The haziness of the laws of this industry is no joke. No matter the messaging to the contrary, it’s no secret that head shops are still a high stake business about getting high.

Are you interested in more about the marijuana industry? What else that’s hiding in your plain sight are you curious about? Email me at [email protected] and I’ll go.


A graduate degree in behavioral science, three generations of Portland blood in her veins, 20 years as a real-estate broker, and a lifetime of delving into other people’s business has caused Becki Saltzman’s severe curiosity disorder. She is the author of Arousing the Buy Curious: Real Estate Pillow Talk for Patrons and Professionals, founder of Oomau Media, and she looks forward to expanding membership in the Tribe of the Curious.

Home Page Photo Credit: bettyx1138 via Compfight cc


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