They go by many names: Roach-O-Rama, Midnight Oasis, Glassy Knoll, Hippie Gypsy, High on the Hill, Puff ‘n’ Stuff, and other sometimes tongue-in-cheek monikers that reflect the whimsical ideals of a generations-old underground culture enamored by the kind herb.
Their musky odors of stale incense and dusty carpeting compliment their outlaw selection of glass pipes, rolling papers, and out-of-date copies of High Times.
Head shops, one of the great American institutions, celebrated 50 years of serving the culture last year (2016.) They epitomize the state of cannabis consumers for the same period: Illegal at the federal level, yet mildly tolerated by state and municipal governments.
A Bastion of Independence
Head shops remain one of the few bastions of true open market independence in the retail business world, with everything from sub shops to drug stores to oil change garages having been gobbled up by international conglomerates and national brands offering nothing more than expensive franchise opportunities and obnoxious national ad campaigns.
Those who travel in the United States can attest to the sorry state of retail homogeneity that exists throughout the nation. It’s tough to differentiate St. Louis from Phoenix from Denver from Cleveland when it comes to the stores and shops from which we purchase everything from light beer to allergy medicine to home theater gear.
Even a visit to the neighborhood pub or diner may involve a watered-down mega brand like Applebee’s or Denny’s, while Target, McDonald’s, Home Depot, Best Buy, Bank of America, Papa John’s, Starbucks, BP, and Walmart dominate the retail landscape.
Head shops are a welcome retreat from this cookie cutter retail environment in which new malls and gas stations in most cities all seem to look the same—something that has plagued even small town America as independent businesses like hardware stores and pharmacies all but disappear in the wake of made-in-China big box chains.
Genesis in San Francisco
Head shops originally appeared in the 1960s in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Some believe the Psychedelic Shop in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, opened in 1966, to be the first head shop.
Another notable location that opened in that same year of the trippy psychedelic era was the Birmingham Balloon Company in Denton, Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas and unlikely home to innovative cannabis culture.
In the United Kingdom, the first “counterculture store” appeared in West London in 1972, followed by intense popularity that prompted Vice to write in 2014, “…head shops have become nearly as ubiquitous as Pizza Express” in England.
By the mid to late 1970s, buoyed by the ever-growing popularity of cannabis and a pervasive black market that infiltrated every high school in the nation, head shops had proliferated to nearly all cities and towns, especially those with college campuses.
An outlet not only for major youth-oriented stoner magazines like Cannabis Culture and SKUNK, head shops also provided distribution and exposure for counterculture newspapers and comics, publications that typically lacked access to conventional newsstand distribution.
In an age before the internet and social media, many writers, activists, musicians, and other bohemian artists spread their message via small independent head shops that smelled more like Bill Maher’s living room than the local Barnes & Noble.
How Are They Legal?
Head shops, if one approaches the experience from the perspective of enabling or enhancing the consumption of cannabis—their sole function, really—are completely illegal. Because cannabis is prohibited at the federal level, no head shop in the United States can legally sell any item intended to be used with pot. Period.
Head shops exist in a legal grey zone, opposed by the feds, but allowed by most states and communities. According to Wikipedia:
“The sale of certain tobacco paraphernalia is considered legal in all states, but is illegal on a federal level.”
Head shops are permitted to exist simply because they play the game of pretending to cater to legal tobacco users.
As long as there are people walking around who are addicted to Marlboros and American Spirits, head shops will possess a viable legal loophole that permits them to cozy up beside low-rent hair salons and tattoo shops in liberal downtown neighborhoods and cheap suburban strip malls.
Fortunately, vaporization and vape pens—known in cigarette circles as e-cigs—are also popular among tobacco smokers. Thus, head shop owners, in a Pythonesque nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the federal government, can legally operate and, in reality, cater to the full needs of the cannabis community.
Simply because of the technical loophole and fact that both tobacco and cannabis are typically smoked or vaporized.
Lucky for you, eh? Or you’d be spending even more money on Amazon.com—but enjoying a decidedly inferior retail experience.
While some counties and municipalities have banned head shops or refuse to grant them business licenses, most areas of the United States tolerate these funky cultural meccas, especially near university campuses and in more progressive communities.
Void Where Prohibited
Often, a state or municipality won’t outlaw head shops per se, but instead may prohibit much of what they typically sell. For example, in Florida, it is illegal to sell any item “designed for use in ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing cannabis, cocaine, hashish, hashish oil, or nitrous oxide into the human body.”
However, even in this case, loopholes exist: Head shops in Florida may sell pipes made of materials like “briar, meerschaum, clay, or corn cob.” A far cry from some heady glass suitable for a serious stoner’s birthday gift, but it still gets the job done for desperate smokers in prohibitionist states.
From smoking staples like screens and rolling papers to music and movie posters, hemp products, and ornate pipes and bongs, head shops are a piece of Americana with an uncertain future.
Many observers believe that legalization in the majority of the country is inevitable. As more states come onboard and abandon cannabis prohibition, what is the fate of the beloved head shop, a cottage industry-cum-institution that is undergoing what would be a midlife crisis if it was a fifty-year-old toker from the suburbs struggling to maintain relevance?
Will They Survive Legalization?
Following legalization in any state is the inevitable onslaught of dispensaries and retail outlets. Many of these companies, in cities like Seattle and Denver, also sell a selection of vape pens, glass bongs, pipes, and even dab rigs intended to serve up the yummy flowers and concentrates (extracts) offered by these same dispensaries.
Will dispensaries and retail outlets in newly legal states spell the doom of the head shops that shaped the cannabis experience and lifestyle of tens of millions of Americans for half a century?
Will the ironic reason head shops were able to exist—pretending to cater to the tobacco smoking community—actually be their undoing?
As smoking becomes less and less popular, new, highly competitive money is entering the cannabis industry as part of the green rush, infusing a culture of productivity and openness borrowed from silicon valley. How will this emerging subculture of “productive potheads” and renewed focus of entrepreneurialism and profit in the cannabis culture affect traditional head shops and their patrons?
The landscape for all businesses is in constant flux. Companies that once thrived selling TVs and home appliances are now either extinct (ala Sears) or have morphed into fundamentally different organizations serving other markets (like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft).
Similarly, some head shops will inevitably choose to adapt to the new markets for openly cannabis-related products in legal states, driven mostly by dispensary competition. Will millennials and retirees be more interested in a pocketable vape pen—and the stuff that goes in it—than a black light poster or Tibetan prayer flags?
Shall Dispensaries Take the Crown?
Given the sales numbers of many dispensaries in legal states, the relatively sluggish business of a conventional head shop would be relegated to a sideline if it adopted sales of medical or recreational cannabis, edibles, or concentrates.
Will most head shops choose to close shop and go out of business, or will they convert to a typical dispensary model that drops the aging hippie image for a clinical boutique environment that just happens to sell a few glass pieces—but focuses on USB vape pens and infused drinks?
With many dispensaries selling both disposable and high-end pens capable of vaporizing concentrates or flower, will sales of bongs, pipes, and rolling papers intended for ground flowers falter? Will millennials and seniors, especially those seeking harm reduction because they frequently consume strong cannabis or concentrates, chose vaporization over smoking in large enough numbers to fundamentally shift the role of a community head shop within the next decade?
These are all questions to ponder as you light up that unknown strain of black market mystery herb in papers or a bong that you purchased at your local head shop. What will the typical American head shop look like in 2025, and who will it serve?
In conservative states where cannabis will inevitably remain illegal for years and possibly decades to come, these generations-old shops may survive and even thrive, fueled by an energized cannabis industry nationwide and legalization in other states.
In areas where prohibition has fallen, head shops will inevitably adapt and compete with dispensaries—or die.
In states that legalize and also allow patients or even lifestyle users to grow a few plants of their own, head shops are wise to stock a bit of cultivation equipment, such as hydro buckets, lights, and nutrients. In many respects, thousands of head shops throughout the U.S. must adapt to their rapidly changing legal environments to ensure that they are catering to the desires of their customers while remaining legal and not inviting scrutiny from local or federal law enforcement.
An Aging Relic of Prohibition
While it’s sad to think of a future void of these densely stocked and unique shops full of character, funky aromas, and sometimes sex toys, they are to a large extent a reflection of the rapidly deteriorating era of prohibition and how the federal government pushed a never-say-die cannabis culture underground.
While it’s refreshing to celebrate the resiliency and tenacity of our trampled culture and support one’s local head shop, it’s also nice to join the 21st century and adopt possibly more suitable retail models that involve a clinical and professional approach to helping customers, especially patients, consume cannabis and concentrates.
As legalization sweeps the nation and cities like Portland, Oakland, and Colorado Springs maintain a culture of open dispensation of all things cannabis, head shops may no longer be necessary. These walk-in wonders may be a facet of prohibition that, after legal cannabis is the norm, no longer have a home within the cannabis culture—or, more important, the monthly budget of the average pot smoker.
Maybe head shops are like the military cold war: A relic of the 20th century struggling to find a niche with a sufficient number of modern tokers to maintain relevance.
And pay their rent.
If they go the way of the brontosaurus, cannabis consumers will miss these always charismatic and sometimes gritty bohemian mom-and-pop retail stores that dotted city and suburban landscapes for five decades.
Will the price of safe access to legal cannabis be the abandonment of culturally relevant institutions like head shops? Leave your thoughts in the comments below….
This article is dedicated to the dozens of groovy head shops I’ve visited throughout Ontario, California, Ohio, British Columbia, Texas, Quebec, and Indiana over the past 20 years—each of which offered a distinct character and authentic experience that made being a cannabis consumer even more enriching.
All text and photos Copyright © 2003-2016 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed feature articles to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Heads (RIP), Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.