Don’t ask, don’t tell: Head shop lingo keeps pipes legal

It's no secret the pipes and smoking paraphernalia sold in tobacco shops aren't exclusive to tobacco use, but are commonly used for smoking marijuana. So, how is it these shops get away with selling marijuana smoking devices? It's all in keeping a secret.

As soon as the word “marijuana” or any illegal drug use is mentioned inside a shop, the sale of the smoking item becomes illegal. This means customers must play by the rule, don't ask, don't tell.

At the Electric Fetus head shop located downtown, pipes are labeled “Smoking Accessories” so as not to intend illegal drug use. Duluth’s city ordinance on the language used in tobacco shops was adopted directly from the Fetus’ policy.

Carrie Brown has been an employee at the Electric Fetus for 12 years and has a lot of experience with the laws surrounding the sale of smoking items.

“These items are only for tobacco,” Brown stated,pointing out the store’s pipes. “We assume all of our customers will use it for tobacco.”

If it’s not for tobacco, Electric Fetus doesn’t sell it – and sometimes this decision all depends upon the name of the product.

For example, it’s totally OK to walk in to a tobacco shop in Duluth and purchase a water pipe, but it’s illegal to buy a bong. Even though water pipes and bongs are the same product, the word “bong” implies it will be used for marijuana.

When talking about pipes, it’s completely legal to speak about them in terms of how they were made, details of the design and other physical aspects of the piece. However, it’s illegal to talk about smoking marijuana or any other illicit substance out of the piece.

When customers ask about the specifics of the pieces, Brown has to be cautious of the language she uses.

“I’ve gotten used to using the correct terminology, and so have most of our customers,” she said. “Most of the people who we have to decline sales to are tourists because they don’t know how to talk about pipes.”

Upon selling the smoking item, it’s not necessary to ask customers what their intended use is for the item; but if an illegal use is stated, the sale cannot be made.

Brown explained the process of selling a tobacco accessory: “First thing we have to do is check I.D.s. If everything checks out, we can move to the sale.”

Head shops have other legal issues to stray away from besides the use of illegal language.

For a while, The Last Place On Earth was another location where tobacco accessories and other illicit products were sold.

Last Place was closed on July 17, 2013 due to owner Jim Carlson’s personal disregard for the law and the sale of many other illegal items beyond just pipes and bongs. The Last Place on Earth was deemed by the city of Duluth to be a public nuisance, contributing greatly to the amount of drug arrests downtown and the trafficking of drugs, such as illegal synthetic marijuana.

With Last Place shut down for now, downtown is a calmer and safer place for customers, shop owners, tourists and Duluth natives alike.

Now, Duluth tobacco shops can thrive so long as they and their customers abide by the laws and social taboos by using the correct and legal language, and selling solely legal products.

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