Saturday, September 8, 2007
It's for tobacco, really (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)
The Hemporium on 17th Avenue S.W. is one of many bong shops in Calgary.
The young woman behind the sales counter is friendly and helpful. That is, until I drop the P-bomb.
"How many bongs does the average pot smoker own?" I ask while scanning the shelves lined with glass bongs in every size and colour.
Immediately adopting a poker face, she responds, "They're for tobacco -- otherwise, we'd be contravening the law."
In every quadrant of our city, one can find shops where brightly coloured bongs line the shelves and a wide selection of pipes sit in glass cases. The stores have names like Grass Roots, Hemporium and Bongs and Such, just in case you still don't get the idea.
Known to some as "head shops," such businesses have been sprouting like, well, weeds all over booming Calgary. You can find them in Forest Lawn, in the northeast industrial area and in the tony shopping districts of Kensington and 17th Avenue S.W.
No matter where they're located, all the shops -- which warn customers at the door their products are "for tobacco use only" -- look pretty much the same once you step inside.
Along with the pipes and bongs, you can find hemp T-shirts, Cheech and Chong dolls, doormats that read
"Legalize It," flags emblazoned with the word "marijuana" and books like The Joint Rolling Handbook.
Nearly every one of the four shops I visit Friday are armed with young salespeople who provide lots of helpful advice on how to get your bong going, how to clean it after use and why you might want to invest $600 in the Volcano, a system inhaler imported from Germany that's billed as a healthier way to get your daily hit.
"This is where you put your 'smokeables,' " says one young man with no hint of a wink.
Just don't use the P- or M-word, though, or those pierced lips will tighten like a trap door.
No number of nudge-nudge, wink-winks, "Oh, you can tell me" pleas, either, will get any of them to admit that such products are targeted to marijuana users. "A lot of my elderly customers use these to smoke tobacco," says one blond surfer dude-type, wearing a hoodie with a giant cannabis leaf emblazoned on the chest, as he pulls a $200 bong off the shelf, "but I make a point not to ask."
Can we blame them?
Technically speaking, these shops just might be breaking the law. Section 472.2 of the Criminal Code of Canada states that is illegal to import, export, manufacture or sell instruments or literature for illicit drug use. In this case, then, loose lips really can sink ships.
And now, such entrepreneurs have another threat in the form of Ald. Craig Burrows, who confirms that he will urge his colleagues at Monday's council meeting to recommend city bureaucrats investigate ways to prohibit the sale of the materials.
It's little wonder, then, that after last March's raid on several businesses selling drug paraphernalia and now Burrows' charge, that getting any of these business owners to speak on the record is a fruitless endeavour.
"I don't want to get in the sights of anyone that wants us as a target for their election campaign," says one inner-city proprietor who wouldn't provide his name. "We're not activists, we're educators and businesspeople."
Still, people like Ed Morgan, a law professor at the University of Toronto, says such fears are unfounded.
Morgan, who successfully challenged the legality of Section 472.2's literature provisions in 1992, says the law has rarely been used because it's so difficult to prove.
"One can surmise by the proliferation of these stores all across the country that the law isn't being rigorously enforced," says Morgan. "Police forces have eased up on prosecuting for personal use of soft drugs, and the paraphernalia is another step removed from the actual drug."
Speaking to Ald. Burrows, one gets the feeling that while he's clearly passionate about cracking down on illicit drug use in our city, he may have jumped the gun on his plan to go after such businesses.
He says rather than employing the Criminal Code, he'd like to see if the city's bylaw services could get involved in stopping what he sees as a scourge on society.
"People think pot is harmless, but it's definitely a gateway drug," says Burrows, who says he wants to see if such measures as not renewing or out-and-out denying business licences is feasible.
At this, Chris Levy can't help but chuckle.
A few years back, says the University of Calgary law professor, Calgary city council tried to clean up prostitute strolls via the bylaw route. The case, Westendorp vs. The Queen, went to the Supreme Court and the bylaw was struck down as an unconstitutional invasion of the federal government's authority.
"If municipalities try to pass bylaws or manipulate permits or licences in such a way as to intrude into the area of criminal law," says Levy, "then they're exceeding their powers."
Levy says there's also a reason so few people have heard of Section 472.2 of the Criminal Code.
"That's because it's so difficult to prosecute, and it ties up a vast amount of investigative and prosecutorial resources," he says. "People like Mr. Burrows can ride all the hobby horses they want, but they should ride ones that are in the purview of local government."
In other words, while it may be a lofty goal to try to tackle the exploding problem of illicit drugs on our city streets, this is one fired-up idea that may quickly go up in smoke.