Florida 'Bong Ban' Fizzles

As long as these bongs are labeled ’for tobacco use only,’ they will remain legal and available for purchase in Florida.

When Florida State Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) wrote a bill to ban the sale of pipes and bongs, many believed it would signal the end of the state’s smoke shop industry. But a survey of several Central Florida smoke shops on the day the ban took effect (July 1) uncovered no discernible changes in merchandising or business practices.

At Pipe Dreams in Fern Park, for example, the store’s displays of pipes remained prominent and unchanged from the week before. Owner Amie Knapton was confident that the bill in its final form would have little or no impact on her business. Her position was clear: “This law changes nothing.”

The story of how a draconian bill was defanged in the legislative process reveals a Florida smoke shop industry that’s mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Roussen’s HB-49 was supposed to sail through the state’s radically conservative legislature and on to the desk of an equally radical Gov. Scott who’d be only too happy to sign it. Everyone involved in the process was eager to see the state’s smoke shops legislated out of business. But Jay Work, owner of a four-store chain called Grateful J’s, wasn’t going to submit quietly. “I’m basically a pipe salesman,” Work tells CelebStoner. “This new bill would have forced me to shut my doors.”

Work had tangled with Rouson before when the representative introduced a 2010 law that limited the percentage of a shop’s income that could be generated from the sale of pipes. Along with an ad hoc group of fellow shop owners, Work hired a lawyer and attacked the law in court through a class action lawsuit. That effort failed as the state landed a body blow against the smoke shop industry. Now, Rouson was coming back with a piece of legislation that was intended to complete the job of permanently closing down all of the state’s smoke shops. In fact, Rouson was so confident that his new bill would be enacted that he included a provision to supersede and replace the previous law that had just prevailed in court.

Florida Smoke Shop Association

Contemplating the possibility of being driven out of business, Work and his colleagues understood that their existence was under attack through a political process. Rather than trying to overturn a bad law that had already been passed, they realized that their best chance was in fighting back through the very same political process. The ad hoc group of shop owners that had lost in court was quickly reconstituted into the Florida Smoke Shop Association and the first order of business was to hire a lobbyist. A couple of days’ worth of research on HB-49 led the new lobbyist to conclude that the bill could be fixed.

And suddenly a bill that was working its way through the legislative process with no resistance and no discussion at all was generating a great deal of discussion, indeed. The final bill that was passed by the legislature amounted to little more than a reaffirmation of existing law, which requires all bongs and pipes to be used for tobacco purposes only. The new law bans their use with illegal drugs. (As a concession to Rouson, who was now forced to accept a very different bill than the one he’d wanted, the repeal of the 2010 legislation was removed.) In fact, the legislation that went into effect is so different from the original bill that Work chides journalists who still refer to a bong ban. He points out to anyone who will listen that “no pipes or bongs have been banned.”

For Work, one of the most important lessons he took away from this experience is about the value of engaging in the political process. “I can imagine our association members sponsoring Get-Out-the-Vote operations in their stores someday,” he muses. “We’re not abandoning our legal fights but at the end of the day this is all about politics. We’re going to be as political as we have to be in order to survive.”

Knapton supports Work’s efforts but is even more expansive. “Look at what [Orlando attorney] John Morgan is doing right now,” she says, regarding his efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state. “With someone like him jumping in to the fight, things could be very different here in Florida in a year or two.”

For the time being, though, both Knapton and Work are content to have avoided what could have been a fatal blow to their industry.

George Colombo

George Colombo

Author, blogger and citizen activist based in the Orlando, Florida area