Video Vault | When one’s drug paraphernalia is another’s ‘smoking tool’

Smoking and possessing small quantities of marijuana is now legal in Nevada. But paradoxically, purchasing or owning devices to consume the pot is not.

This disparity dates back to the early 1980s when there was a crackdown on what were known as "Head Shops."

"Places where police say you can get various drug apparatus," explained News 3's Marla Martin in 1982. "Like bongs or roach clips which are used to smoke marijuana."

They were all over town with places like "Mr. Bill's," "The Wizard's Lair," "Headwest" and the rather blatantly named "Reefer General Store." Police and politicians felt like their war on drugs was being undermined. So one by one, the city, county and state all passed laws and ordinances aimed at shutting them down.

"Prohibiting the manufacture, sale, delivery or advertisement of drug paraphernalia," quoted News 3's Holly Echols. "Labeled 'Head Shops,’ such businesses have been charged with furthering drug abuse."

Crackdown enforced

The laws were approved, and several high-profile arrests were made as a result.

"As long as we have legitimate businesses as this selling narcotics paraphernalia, repackaging items and things like that, then the people are going to think in their own minds that it's morally OK to use it and to sell it and to buy it," Metro Detective Dick Travers told News 3.

But the battle wasn't over.

"Stores which sell drug paraphernalia are not closed," said News 3's Lynette Taylor in a 1981 report in front of the Wizard's Lair. "That's why this group calling itself ‘NO DOPE' is picketing."

"There is plenty of legal precedent in this country for closing head shops," a spokesman for the National Organization for Drug Offense Prevention told Taylor. "Twenty-two states have outlawed them, and 13 states consider it a felony to sell drug paraphernalia."

Is it a 'coke spoon'?

But what exactly constituted paraphernalia? An attempt to ban "coke spoons" failed after attorney Dominic Gentile demonstrated a small utensil he was given with his coffee on a flight to McCarran.

"I think that this spoon right here could easily fall within that definition," Gentile told the Las Vegas City Council. "And I wonder if you contemplate enforcing this law against Delta Airlines and arresting them."

At another court hearing, Gentile dramatically removed toilet paper from a cardboard tube which he handed to an expert witness.

"And I've seen it used as a smoking device," testified the former Drug Enforcement Agency officer.

"It's not the paraphernalia. It's the drugs," argued one opponent of the new laws while gesturing toward a Head Shop. "I mean, what is this? Can you get high on these things in here? No."

News 3 videotaped several arrests at Head Shops. Some of the charges were dismissed, while others led to convictions.

'The law is still being violated'

"The mere fact that they've been arrested once but then continue to do it would be like saying if you rob a store and you were arrested one time, it would be OK to rob it again," said frustrated Metro Sgt. Steve Tuggle. "The law is still being violated."

It all seemed very inconclusive.

"Despite the controversy surrounding the passage of the head shop ordinances, owners of the establishments and the police agree that it may be years before the court tests are completed," summed up reporter Steve Schorr.

Three and a half decades later, Mr. Bill's is still around along with many similar establishments. Today they're called "Smoke Shops" instead of "Head Shops." They make it clear that the bongs, rolling papers and various pipes they sell are intended for tobacco use. That's the story and they're sticking to it.

Now that smoking and possessing small quantities of marijuana for recreational use is legal in Nevada, it is unclear for not if or when the head shop laws will be repealed.

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