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Florida Smoke Shop Owners Organize Against Anti-Pipe Legislation

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, wants to ban glass water pipes (bongs) in Florida. He has proposed and backed several bills that would effectively shut down stores that sell these products. His first bill, which never made it to a vote, would have put a 25 percent tax on everything sold in these stores. The most recent legislation, SB 366, would require any store that sells pipes to prove that 75 percent of their gross sales come from tobacco products.

Rep. Rousan went on the Paul and Young Ron Show last week, suggesting he should be considered a hero for "fighting Florida's drug problem" and that head-shop owners were "cowards."

Dozens of store owners across the state, their livelyhood now threatened, are fighting back. Jay Work, the owner of Grateful J's Grateful Deadhead Shop, has organized a coalition of store owners from all over Florida dedicated to defeating the current legislation. We spoke with him about his cause.


Work is understandably incensed over the current bill. "Shop owners, small-business owners are being thrown under the bus here," he says.

The legislators voting on the bill have no idea what they're talking about, says Work: "Most of them have never been into a shop like mine."

Rep. Rouson, a recovering crack addict, has implied that these water pipes are used to smoke crack. "One committee member said she didn't know what 80 percent of these things are, but that someone in church told her it was all bad. And these are the people who are going to put thousands of people out of work in this state." 

The most recent bill is particularly asinine, he says. "They're saying that if I sell a $4,000 piece of art at my store, that I have to sell $12,000 worth of cigarettes. I'm not sure who that helps," Work says. "They're saying basically you can sell this stuff -- we're just going to make it really hard."

Rouson, and other supporters of the bill, say this would treat smoke shops like restaurants that have liquor licenses and have to see at least 51 percent of their sales from food.

Work brings up the most obvious hypocrisy in this type of legislation. The pipes are legal to make, sell, buy, and own. The state has made it clear that these pipes are only illegal if you use them to do something illegal. This bill attempts to circumvent current law, singling out glass pipes.

"The pipe itself is just a pipe," Work says. "The pipes I sell are harmless unless you take the pipe outside and beat someone over the head with it." There are currently about 250 stores like Work's in Florida. The consequence of this bill would not be less drug use, but rather more unemployment, he says.

So he set about organizing. He started a website opposing Rouson's original bill (HB 187), calling it Kill Bill 187. The site became a forum for shop owners to discuss their situations. He wrote to other smoke shop owners around the state. Most of these small-business owners are quiet, peaceful, independent people who don't generally follow state politics, Work says, so he had to explain the legislation.

"Most people were scared," he says. "Selling glass pipes and posters and the art that we sell, this is how we feed our families." He says his coalition now includes 73 stores from all over the state. They share information and write letters to politicians they think might listen. They have a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures. They're hoping someone in Tallahassee comes to his or her senses.

"As the country moves forward," Work says, "Florida is moving backwards."

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Michael J. Mooney

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