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A Boom in the Bong Business

As marijuana use surges, head shops are getting bolder. One store even advertises on cable TV. Authorities say they are too busy chasing cocaine and heroin dealers to focus on paraphernalia peddlers.

December 05, 1996|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a spacious garage two doors away from a private Pasadena elementary school, two men use blow torches to mold thin Pyrex cylinders into fancy glass pipes favored by marijuana smokers.

At a private after-hours club in Hollywood, a budding entrepreneur sashays about the dance floor, giving patrons free water pipes, or bongs, to create a buzz about his paraphernalia business.

In 450,000 homes in West Los Angeles, cable TV viewers can watch commercials for a local head shop that sells a full line of equipment for marijuana smokers. One ad boldly parodies Rodney King's plea: "Can't we all get a bong?"

Buoyed by a surge in marijuana use, the drug paraphernalia business appears to be booming. Working from rented homes or warehouses, eager young capitalists are turning out thousands of pipes and bongs--devices said to boost the effect of marijuana--despite laws against selling and transporting such equipment.

The items are sold at retail stores known as head shops that try to attract customers with surprisingly bold window displays. At Vajar on Melrose Avenue, 20 bongs are showcased--including one fashioned from a baby bottle.

The industry is operating in full view of law enforcement officials who say they are too busy chasing cocaine and heroin dealers to bother with paraphernalia peddlers. Indeed, one of Southern California's largest bong makers freely conducts business in a Northridge neighborhood so notorious for drug dealing that it is under constant police surveillance.

The industry seems to be benefiting from a certain ambivalence about marijuana, even as concerns about illegal drug use intensify. Californians last month approved Proposition 215, allowing marijuana for medical use, although drug abuse--especially among teens--was a major issue in the presidential campaign.

Openly selling paraphernalia would have been unthinkable only five years ago. Declaring war on drugs, state and federal authorities seized shipments, raided head shops and drove the paraphernalia industry underground.

As part of its 1991 Operation Pipe crackdown, U.S. customs agents in Los Angeles seized three truckloads of paraphernalia worth $3.5 million. By contrast, the agency's largest haul in Los Angeles over the last five years was a shipment of key chains with brass pipes attached to them valued at $7,000.

Echoing comments by local police and prosecutors, a Customs Service representative said: "Drug paraphernalia is not our highest priority."

No longer prime law enforcement targets, paraphernalia firms are beginning to behave like conventional businesses--airing TV ads and conducting product giveaways. One bong maker uses a CD-ROM Yellow Pages directory to locate potential retail customers. Another paraphernalia maker uses the World Wide Web to promote its selection of blown-glass bongs and other pipes. Yet another bong company is lending its name to professional sports sponsorships.

Head shops are starting to shed their underground image, ditching dim lighting and Grateful Dead posters in favor of coffee bars and live music. Galaxy, a month-old store on Melrose, includes an art gallery and a juice bar--and what owner Russ Ceres claims is the city's largest selection of water pipes. On a recent weekend, a professional glass blower from Oakland made hand pipes to entertain customers.

"We're trying to bring intelligence and style to the pipe shops," said Ceres, 27. "We want to get that Beavis and Butthead image out of the limelight."

Operating from a studio in Brentwood, John Brown typifies the new breed of paraphernalia entrepreneur. By his calculation, he and an employee turn out more than 100 hand-crafted bongs a week, which Brown sells to the two dozen "head shops that count" around Los Angeles.

Hoping to drum up business outside the city, Brown makes cold calls to potential customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and sends them color brochures. On weekends, he works the crowds at private after-hours clubs, handing out free 6-inch acrylic water pipes that retail for $15 to $20 to publicize his business.

Clad in a leather jacket over a faded "Star Wars" shirt, his spiky white hair on end, Brown turned up at a Hollywood club named High Society one recent Saturday. Slung over his shoulder was a Kenneth Cole satchel containing 15 bongs. As he made his way across the dance floor, Brown stopped and embraced a club patron, offering the startled man a free water pipe.

"I love to get high," said the man, an aspiring rapper who gave his name as DAX, for Digital Audio Extra-large. Grinning broadly, DAX shouted over the loud dance music: "This is beautiful."

Minutes later, Brown reached into his bag and handed a bong to Damien DeSantos, a 25-year-old insurance broker from the San Fernando Valley. Thrilled with his freebie though he already owns three bongs, DeSantos gave Brown an enthusiastic high-five.

"This is outstanding," DeSantos declared.

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