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'Head shops' flourish on Strand

David Wren
Sun-News Myrtle Beach

May 12, 1996

Matthew and a couple of friends were doing a little comparison shopping on Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle. Beach last week, looking for the best price on a water-cooled marijuana pipe.

"I only use those things to smoke tobacco," Matthew sad, causing one of his buddies to respond with a disbelieving "Yeah, right." Matthew -- an 18-year-old from Augusta, Ga., who wouldn't give his last name -- said he realizes the colorful and elaborately decorated pipes sold in many Ocean Boulevard beachwear stores are often used to smoke marijuana.

"That's why a lot of people my age come to Myrtle Beach," he said. "They come here to get messed."

Drug paraphernalia, once hard to find along the Boulevard, is being sold in just. about every T-shirt shop near the oceanfront this spring.

"We're seeing a lot more paraphernalia this year for some reason," said Myrtle Beach police Capt. Warren Gall. "It's unfortunate, but marijuana is becoming more acceptable to young adults. And beachwear stores are going to sell whatever they can make money on."

Marijuana use -- especially among young adults -- is on the rise nationwide, and anti-drug activists say readily available drug paraphernalia is partly to blame.

Those who want to see marijuana legalized say paraphernalia doesn't lure anyone into taking drugs. A water-cooled marijuana pipe, they say, is no more dangerous than a Dr. Grabow tobacco pipe sold at Wal-Mart.

Local officials say the debate doesn't really matter. They're not going to enforce anti-paraphernalia laws, even though they could.

Making a Comeback

So-called "head shops," places where drug paraphernalia is sold, flourished on the Boulevard in the late 197Os and early '80s. But a little more than 10 years ago, the bongs, pipes, rolling papers and other merchandise virtually disappeared.

This spring, drug paraphernalia is being sold openly and is even displayed in some storefront windows.

"It kind of went away in the 1980s because that's when people who grew up in the '60s and '70s finally woke up out of their cloud and had to face the reality of going to work and raising families," said Reuben Hyman, operations manager for eagles, which has 15 locations along the Grand Strand.
Hyman said Eagles doesn't sell drug paraphernalia because it wants to maintain " a family operation."

He calls Ocean Boulevard's row of mom-and-pop beachwear store "the combat zone," and said those shops have always pushed the limit when it comes to sales of drug paraphernalia and sexually suggestive T-shirts.

"Now, in the '90s, we have a new group of kids who are resurging back into (marijuana)," Hyman said. "It has kind of recycled."

There's another reason drug paraphernalia is on the comeback -- local officials have stopped enforcing anti-drug paraphernalia laws.

The city as an ordinance that bans the sale of drug paraphernalia, and City Manager Tom Leath said anti-paraphernalia laws were used several times in the 1980s and early '90s to cite store owners who tried to sell the merchandise.

"We used it all the time back in the '8Os," said Myrtle Beach police Lt. Joe Vella.

But the city's law conflicts with a state law passed in 1982 that decriminalized the sale of drug paraphernalia.

While it's still illegal to sell drug related merchandise under the state law, those who do sell it face nothing more than a fine. There is no threat of jail time, and merchants who break the law won't face criminal charges.

For years, the city ignored the state law and prosecuted merchants under local paraphernalia laws. But last year, 15th Circuit Solicitor Ralph Wilson advised Myrtle Beach officials to stop prosecuting people under the city's paraphernalia law, which carries possible jail time as well as a fine.

"As long as he (Wilson) holds that position, we're not going to enforce our ordinance," Leath said. "As word has spread that we aren't enforcing the law, more merchants are selling the stuff."

Wilson said Myrtle Beach police can still use the state law to, issue a summons to merchants caught selling paraphernalia. Those cases would be heard in magistrate's court, where a fine of up to $ 50,000 could be issued. But, so far, city officials have declined to go after Boulevard merchants.

"There's nothing preventing them from issuing a summons, just like in a traffic matter," Wilson said. "They (merchants) can be fined. They just can't be put in jail."

Tough Competition

Diane Garon, who owns a pair of Ocean Boulevard beachwear stores, said paraphernalia sales has become a cutthroat competition.

"There were maybe three shops down here last year that sold these tobacco pipes, "Garon said. "Now, everyone has them. As soon as one store gets something, everyone else gets it, too. I just hope it doesn't get too far out of hand."
It's difficult to find a Boulevard shop that isn't selling drug paraphernalia this spring. And Garon said demand for the merchandise has been strong.

"They sell really well," Garon said, adding that she sees no difference between the pipes she sells and the ones that are sold in tobacco shops such as The Tinder Box.

But, unlike legitimate tobacco shops, boulevard store owners often send conflicting messages by insisting their water pipes are for tobacco use only and then placing the merchandise next to T-shirts advocating drug use.

The Beach World store at 918 N. Ocean Blvd., for example, displayed its pipes and bongs last week in a cabinet that was decorated by a beach towel with a marijuana leaf on it.

The owner of Beach World, who would only identify himself as Joe Cool, said the beach towel wasn't meant to imply that his water pipes should be used to smoke marijuana.

"It's not just a pot leaf," he said. "That leaf is also a symbol for Jamaican people. It represents culture, religion and relaxation. It's a symbol for (reggae music star) Bob Marley, man."

Eric Bradburn, manager of the Can-Am Gifts store at 1103 N. Ocean Blvd., said his store is careful not to sell or display anything that includes pro-drug slogans or pictures. That way, he said, Can-Am Gifts can make credible claim that its pipes really are for tobacco smokers.

Can-Am Gifts was cited several years ago for selling key chains shaped like pipes, Bradburn said, adding that he thinks police cracked down on the store because it was also selling T-shirts with slogans such as, "If You're Not Wasted, Then the Day Is".

"The city told us if we take all the (pro-drug) merchandise out, then it's cool if we sell tobacco products," Bradburn said. "Those are the boundaries."

Leath said he doubts city police would have told Can-Am Gifts that it can sell drug paraphernalia under those conditions.

But if those are the rules, no one else seems to be following them.

Just about every Boulevard beachwear store sells paraphernalia alongside T-shirts and beach towels promoting drug use.

Some of the most popular T-shirts are takeoffs on legitimate merchandise, such as breakfast cereals and fruit drinks. One shirt advertises a fake product called Hi-THC, a takeoff on the Hi-C fruit drink. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana.

Another shirt shows a leprechaun sitting on top of a psilocybin mushroom, with the slogan "Lucky's Farm -- It's Magically Delirious."

"I don't see how those other stores are getting away with it," Bradburn said.

Myrtle Beach tourists have had a mixed reaction to the increasing availability of drug paraphernalia on the Boulevard.
"Maybe the younger people don't think anything of it, but I don't like it," said Elmer Rosler, a tourist from Ohio. "My children go into those stores."

But another tourist from New Jersey, who didn't want to give his name, called the paraphernalia a welcome sight.

"I just bought (a bong for my kid," he said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I'd rather see my kid smoking pot than drinking.

The Debate

Store owners are playing a coy game, anti-drug activists say, by claiming their merchandise is sold only for tobacco use.

"Merchants are willingly and knowingly stretching the law so they can make a buck," said Sue Rusche, executive director of the Atlanta-based National Families In Action. "I've seen glass crack pipes sold under the pretense that they're for tobacco use. The merchants don't care about the kids who are buying that stuff."

But Allen St. Pierre -- deputy national director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws - said an attack on paraphernalia is an attack on constitutional rights.

"No one can clearly define what paraphernalia is," St. Pierre said. "I can make a piece of paraphernalia out of an apple in 10 seconds. Does that mean apples should be illegal?

"Paraphernalia laws are just one more component of the prohibition of marijuana that we've been fighting for the past 25 years," he said.

Boulevard shop owners say they're doing nothing wrong because they advertise the paraphernalia as tobacco pipes. What customers do with the pipes after they're sold, shop owners say, is not their concern.

"If a customer indicates that they're going to use these pipes for illegal substances, then the sale is terminated," said Bradburn, manager of Can-Am Gifts. "We have no control over what they do when they leave. But everything we do here, we do by the book.

Most beachwear shops will sell the pipes only to customers who are at least 18 years old. But Garon, owner of the Rock 'N' Wave and Boulevard Beachwear stores, said she's noticed several fake IDs already this spring.

If they are under age, Garon said, "I tell them to hit the road."

Mark Greer, an anti-drug legislation activist and author of "The Drug Solution," said Boulevard merchants shouldn't have to worry about whether they can sell drug paraphernalia.

"Paraphernalia laws are a ludicrous attempt at controlling drug use," Greer said, adding that banning bongs and pipes "will have about as much effect at eliminating drugs as banning bottles would have in outlawing alcohol."

Greer said paraphernalia might as well be legal, because if consumers want it they're bound to get it.
"We never have and never will be able to control any desired product in this free enterprise society, whether that product is a cocaine spoon, a minivan or a VCR," he said. "One of the best examples of that is our complete failure at alcohol prohibition."

Harmful or Harmless?

Proving a correlation between the availability of paraphernalia and an increase in drug usage is as difficult as proving that Joe Camel gets children hooked on cigarettes.

"There's no clear evidence, it's just common sense," said Rusche, who added that head shops are "nothing but learning labs for young drug abusers."

Rusche calls the growing number of head shops "deja vu" because her organization successfully fought for anti-paraphernalia legislation in the early 1980s.

"The whole thing is starting to repeat itself," she said.

A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows marijuana use is on the rise, especially among young adults. And that increase in popularity is in line with a greater availability of drug paraphernalia.

The NIDA survey shows a sharp increase in marijuana use among young adults since 1992, with 41.7 percent of high school seniors admitting to having smoked marijuana at least once in their lives. That figure was 32.6 percent four years ago.

According to the survey, marijuana is a bigger problem than alcohol for high school students. About 4.5 percent of high school seniors admit they smoke marijuana every day compared with 3.5 percent who drink alcohol every day.

Rusche blames a youth culture that glamorizes drug use for the increase in paraphernalia sales.

"Drug use has gone mainstream," she said. "You can't walk into a record store these days without seeing T-shirts promoting marijuana. Even the movie 'How to Make An American Quilt' has grannies sitting around smoking pot and stitching.

But St. Pierre, NORML's deputy national director, downplays the effect paraphernalia has on youth.

"In a world full of greater evils," he said, "paraphernalia is pretty far down the list of things to worry about."

Karon Mitchell has battled Ocean Boulevard shop owners for years over their sexually suggestive T-shirts, but she said the drug paraphernalia poses a bigger problem.

"It's awful," said Mitchell, who teaches at Myrtle Beach Elementary School and owns a downtown Myrtle Beach hotel. "It sends a bad message to our youth, and it sends a bad message about Myrtle Beach. (Drug paraphernalia) certainly doesn't promote a family beach image.

"We can't seem to clean up Myrtle Beach because of those beachwear stores," she added. "I really have to question what type of people are running those places when they sell stuff like that."


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