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Rouson targets Florida head shops

TALLAHASSEE — A reformed crack addict-turned-lawmaker is targeting the instrument of his affliction: the glass pipe.

This session, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has been rallying support to pass a bill that could take bongs, water pipes and maybe hookahs off tobacco store shelves. It cleared its last Senate committee last week.

"You know how people say there's nothing like a reformed smoker or reformed addict?" Rouson said. "I'm dedicated to freeing communities of substance abuse, and these shops seemed like a good place to start."

Rouson's bill mandates that tobacco stores get three-quarters of their revenue from tobacco sales. No more than 25 percent can come from drug paraphernalia. That's a standard that the owners of head shops, which specialize in bongs and drug-related goods, say they can't meet, especially after the federal government banned the popular clove cigarette last summer.

Now a loosely organized group of head shop owners is trying to band together. It's led by Jay Work of Grateful J's Deadhead Shop in Margate, who's been trying to find other owners of the low-key businesses to persuade them to speak out.

"They tell me they don't want to be targeted," Work said. But, "we're already the targets."

The debate has become something of a morality play of this year's legislative session.

Work and the owners of stores with names such as Altered Visions, the Hemp Factory and Kish My Ash see themselves as victims of a recovering addict gone too far.

They invoke phrases similar to other campaigns against goods that might be deemed socially irresponsible.

"Stores don't facilitate drug addiction," Work says. "People facilitate drug addiction."

If the bill passes — it still has one more House committee to clear — Work said he and other owners will have no other choice but to shut down.

In his stores in Margate and Boca Raton, between 30 and 50 percent of sales come from glass bowls and pipes, some of which he made himself. Only 13 percent of his sales come from tobacco.

When he found out about the bill, he started to call head shops he knew, and they called others. In all, about 60 stores have joined his Smoke Shop Coalition. But most of the 250 owners he found refused to join.

The coalition has started a blog and written letters to lawmakers.

Rouson said the biggest barrier to getting the bill passed might not be head shop owners but other lawmakers. When he tried to push a bill addressing the issue last year, he said, many lawmakers thought the issue was frivolous.

Rouson, who has been sober since 1998, originally pitched a high sales tax on the products. This year, he figured more taxes wouldn't fly.

The new proposal, he says, is akin to mandating that a restaurant can sell alcohol only if most of its sales are from food.

"If it's a tobacco shop, and these are tobacco pipes," Rouson said, "then let there be some truthfulness and transparency. Sell tobacco."

Robert Samuels can be reached at rsamuels@miamiherald.com.

Rouson targets Florida head shops 04/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 9:07pm]
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