What Now? The Humble Head Shop Turns 50

This article is dedicated to the dozens of funky 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.

Gooey Rabinski 


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musky odors of stale incense and dusty carpeting compliment their outlaw selection of glass pipes, rolling papers, and out-of-date copies of High Times.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 in 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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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 that both tobacco and cannabis are typically smoked or vaporized.

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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 universities 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….

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All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2018 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.

 

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2 thoughts on “What Now? The Humble Head Shop Turns 50

  1. Also reminds me of the early mom-and-pop natural food stores – where, once clean organic food became popular, they couldn’t accommodate the growing spectrum of products being created to meet the demand. Slowly those little guys dried up and went away. Hello Whole Foods!

    Liked by 1 person

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