New Florida law aims to weed out bongs

The so-called bong bill, which took effect July 1, is the newest addition to state law governing the purchase of tobacco smoking devices that could pull double-duty as drug paraphernalia.

The law requires sellers of the water pipes to have a state-issued tobacconist license and requires them to make at least 75 percent of their income from selling tobacco.

Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward said he isn’t sure who is responsible for figuring out if merchants meet that requirement.

“We need to look into it and see how the determination is going to be made on their percentage of tobacco being sold,” he said, “and certainly, if the items are being sold in a store where there’s no tobacco being sold, that should be a no-brainer.”

In Key West, most shops that sell bongs apparently are owned by out-of-town interests and staffed by people not too eager to answer questions. But anecdotally, tobacco and the associated pipes and bongs make up a small percentage of overall inventory.

Most of these places have one or two display cases containing what could be construed as drug paraphernalia, but primarily peddle T-shirts and other clothes and miscellaneous accessories such as jewelry, purses, shoes and belts.

In October 2008, a contingent of 16 state and federal law enforcement agencies raided 12 stores on Duval Street, carting off an estimated $1 million worth of drug paraphernalia. No one was charged.

Ward said he wants to wait to see how challenges to the new law shake out before prosecuting locally, while a leader in the drive to reform marijuana laws called the bong bill a manifestation of “thought crime.”

“It all comes down to a matter of a thought crime,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the Keynoter from his office in Washington, D.C., last week. “What are you going to use it for? As long as tobacco is legal in the U.S. and people need devices to smoke tobacco, then there will also be smoke shops.”

Pierre and other higher-ups at NORML are familiar not only with the new Florida law, but also with the Duval Street head-shop scene, as Key West plays host every December to NORML’s annual meeting.

Some head-shop owners (26 statewide) have sued in Hillsborough County, calling the new law unconstitutional by singling out specific types of businesses.

“I think we’re going to wait and see how challenges work out” before taking a swing at it locally, Ward said.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg who’s an admitted former crack addict and the bill sponsor, called head shops a “facade” for supporting illegal activity.

“Everyone knows what’s being smoked out of these pipes,” he said. “The only ones who claim they don’t know are the sellers of these pipes. The law just tries to chip away at what we know is a facade.”

“The intent of the law, one presumes, is to diminish marijuana smoking in Florida and diminish access to devices people can consume marijuana with,” St. Pierre said. “Both will fail. There will be no diminution of marijuana use in Florida because of this statute and entrepreneurs will continue to sell to consenting adults.

“Regardless of the state law, it really comes down to local morals and values, whether these amorphous laws will actually be enforced.”