The Bong Show
The glass glows dull red, like a campfire ember, above the gas torch. The young artist, sitting on a stool in front of a wooden bench with a metal top, works with confident, quick motions, creating a tube by fusing white glass sticks together around a one-inch-thick cylinder of graphite.
James Lynch, 27, has an average build, short, light-brown hair and a goatee. He's wearing Birkenstocks, a black T-shirt, shorts, and sporty-looking didymium shades that mute the searing orange and blue light of the torch. He soon moves on to a spherical glass shape, holding it over the flame by pencil-thin rods of glass, his fingers inches away from potential third-degree burns. Gloves wouldn't allow him the kind of control he needs.
"My hands are always a little bit red and cooked by the end of the day," he says.
One of the rods is hollow, and, at times, Lynch sends a puff of air through it to the sphere, expanding and shaping it. His workspace is filled with rods of raw glass, forceps, large tweezers, an old butter knife, rubber tubes, and other equipment.
Glass is a strange and beautiful substance, and glass blowing is an ancient process, fascinating to watch. Glass is what scientists call an amorphous solid, meaning the molecules that constitute it aren't stacked into neat, crystalline structures they're just sort of frozen in place. The idea of windows flowing as some sort of liquid is just an urban myth, but misconceptions about glass only add to its mystique. The way glass can be teased into any form and then become solid, clearer than ice, is like sorcery.
Aside from its beauty, glass has special properties sought by most buyers of Lynch's products. It doesn't melt or give off toxic fumes under the flame of a Bic lighter, and it's relatively easy to clean.
Lynch has a home studio in Chandler, but today, he's doing contract work in a store called It's All Goodz in Tempe, working behind a window that allows customers to watch him blow glass. Lynch describes himself as a budding artist, saying nearly half his income last year came from sales of glass seascapes at the Tempe Festival of the Arts and other venues. He's also a senior instructor in the craft at the Mesa Arts Center.
What's paid the bulk of the bills over the years, though, has been his custom glass pipes and bongs products that most people would call dope paraphernalia.
The first time he saw someone making glass pipes, he was 17. He says he knew right then he had found his calling. He paid the glass blower to teach him the basics, and then worked for a company in Colorado for a year before becoming self-employed, founding I Blew It Glassworks, a name his mother came up with in an attempt to embarrass him. It's not making him rich, but he does what he loves and it pays the bills. Paraphernalia helped him buy a home and helps support his wife and 4-year-old son.
"I thought, at one point, 'By the time my kid gets old enough to ask what I do for a living, I'd be done making pipes,'" Lynch says.
Now, he no longer worries about it.
"I can't say what other people do with them," he says of his handmade smoking accessories. "It's nothing I'm really ashamed of."
It would be hard to argue, however, that the attraction behind the window at It's All Goodz is wholesome family entertainment. The glass creations made and sold at head shops like this represent lawlessness, rebellion, and sin to a significant portion of society. To many people over 30 even those who may tolerate the pot-smoking of others or may toke a little themselves head shops still carry an aura of embarrassing seediness.
Lynch opens the kiln on the workbench and removes one of his latest masterpieces, a finished product that needed a crack repaired before it could be sold. The piece features a detailed white glass skull resting in a skeletal hand, with one cylindrical, hollow "bone" rising from the back.
It's a comely little bong, about a foot tall. To the uninitiated, its most astonishing feature is probably its price. Mark Sayegh, the shop's high-energy owner, says it will retail for $420.
As in 420, the international code for marijuana that refers to both the time on the clock and April 20. Legends vary on how 420 became a symbol for a great time and date to get high, but in this case, it represents a sales trend.
For growing numbers of marijuana users these days, upscale pot paraphernalia is where it's at.
Lynch's glass skull and claw while it may seem absurdly expensive to aging hippies who remember when a lid of grass went for $30 is nowhere near the priciest bong in Sayegh's shop. That one, a curvaceous multisection bubbler named The Neutron Bomb, is priced at $2,500.
Most of the bongs at the store are more practical they're essentially glass versions of the plastic tube bongs from the '80s, like the one Spicoli used in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Yet even the midrange bongs are much fancier than their old-school predecessors, employing the latest glass-working and coloring techniques. Dozens of such bongs line the shelved walls, most with price tags of more than $150. Sayegh points to a monster bong, a nine-foot sectional glass tuber made in California, and brags that he's sold two of that particular model in the past eight months, for $1,200 each.
Those in the know say the market for nice glassware for stoners has been growing since the mid-'90s, especially in California and the Northwest, and for a host of reasons, has taken off in recent years in the Valley. Not every smoker uses expensive paraphernalia, of course, but the demand is enormous, judging from the number of stores in metro Phoenix that sell the stuff.
In Tempe, a college town that has long been the area's ground zero for head shops, competition among bong sellers has never been higher. At least five new head shops have opened in the college town in the past three years, with three specializing in high-end merchandise. Veteran stores like Trails, Hippie Gypsy, the Headquarters, and the Graffiti Shop, meanwhile, don't appear to be hurting.
It's a business success story that's making aspiring artists like Lynch not to mention fashionable, well-to-do stoners very happy, indeed.
"Most people [in the business] would agree this is a genuine American movement. It's a revolution," Lynch says. "We've created an industry where there wasn't one before."
Selling bongs for hundreds of dollars apiece seems wrong on so many levels.
To begin with, there's the image of wastoids stumbling among intricate, high-priced pieces of fragile glassware disaster waiting to happen. And unless the stoner who owns such a work of art is meticulous about cleaning it, the sticky, brown resin left from smoking will soon destroy any beauty it once had. It's a safe bet that there are more filthy expensive glass bongs in the Valley than clean ones.
From a practical standpoint, an expensive water pipe is about as logical as a Kate Spade handbag. Bongs are little more than lonely hookahs, which also filter smoke through water, but hookahs which have been used for centuries to smoke tobacco, hashish, and opium have multiple mouthpieces that allow several people to inhale at the same time. Bongs have just one. They're simple devices. For just pennies, one can be built by using any small, plastic container. And it will get the job done, arguably just as well as a something that costs $1,000.
Then there's the law. Collectors of bongs, unlike collectors of, say, bronze cowboy sculptures, presumably have to be careful about how they show off their favorite pieces, and to whom. Owning a pot pipe or bong, once it's been used to smoke illegal drugs, is a felony in Arizona. So is possession of any amount of marijuana, making Arizona one of the harshest anti-pot states in the country.
Whether used or not, bongs are illegal to sell under federal law, and violators can be punished with up to three years in prison. Theoretically, head shops can be raided by federal agents at any time.
Thirty-seven years after the founding of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, the way America approaches the issue of marijuana and the tools used to smoke it is still something of a paradox.
Each year, local, state, and federal authorities spend billions of dollars to arrest and jail marijuana offenders. FBI statistics show that record numbers of people are getting busted for simple marijuana possession in the United States nearly 700,000 in 2005. (The 2006 numbers come out next month).
All that enforcement, yet marijuana is embedded in our culture like never before. More than 40 percent of Americans age 12 and up, including authority figures like the current governors of Arizona and California, have tried it. Music laden with pro-pot lyrics is hardly edgy anymore. Nor is it shocking these days in Phoenix to see a preteen wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a giant pot leaf. Television shows depict more characters than ever smoking pot casually, as if they were drinking a beer. Bong hits are de rigueur for the characters on HBO's Entourage. One recent episode featured characters Drama and Turtle figuring out a way to score highly potent medical marijuana, which they fire up in a bubbler.
The word bong (which allegedly comes from the Thai "baung," meaning a short pipe cut from a piece of bamboo), may have become even more of a household word by now, thanks to a major freedom of speech case concluded in late June by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the justices decided that a school principal was within her rights to suspend a student for displaying a banner with the phrase "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," even though the display wasn't on school property.
For some of today's marijuana smokers, an expensive, arty water pipe symbolizes a new, more open age. The devices are a way of announcing: "I smoke pot, and I'm proud of it."
"I put mine on top of the entertainment center," says an owner of a $280 bong. "I like to show it off."
On a macroeconomic level, stoners are doing the same thing as many other Americans seeking an identity through luxury goods. Academics have noted in the past few years that middle-class citizens, for a bunch of reasons, are indulging in more and more high-end purchases. Everyone craves a taste of the good life these days, and stores are responding with more products over which people can obsess. For some, it's the occasional ultra-prime cut of steak or the latest digital doodad.
For others, it's a triple-chambered, handmade-in-America ROOR glass water pipe.
But to really complete the dope fashion scene, stoners also need the high-quality pot that drug czar John Walters has been complaining about.
Government researchers say marijuana, in general, has grown stronger since the 1990s. The University of Mississippi Marijuana Potency Project recently found that average levels of THC, the active ingredient in pot, are more than twice as high as in the late 1980s.
Users say even better weed skunk, chronic, kind with up to 15 percent THC, has been pouring into Arizona from California and Oregon, as well as from local indoor growers. Users covet the better, more expensive pot, which they say tastes better and requires fewer puffs to achieve the desired effect, over crappy weed called schwag. Cannabis connoisseurs seek out different strains of marijuana as if they were fine wines, paying $80 to $600 an ounce, according to sources like www.hightimes.com.
Putting skunk weed in a plastic bong, tasteful stoners explain, would be kind of like putting a pricey Cabernet in a Dixie cup.
Fancy bongs, then, aren't such a bad idea, after all. As fashion accessories and symbols of status and freedom, they make perfect sense.
Or maybe well-to-do potheads are just getting too high.
Joy doesn't call herself a stoner. She's just a person who likes to smoke pot every day. And she likes to do it in style.
She's got a collection of water pipes, and her most prized is a little pink-and-green glass "bubbler," a small bong she bought about seven years ago. It's not her most expensive piece (she got it on sale for $150), but it's a doozy about a foot long with swirls, shimmers, a pot-leaf emblem, carefully crafted inner chambers, twists of glass, and delicate horns.
She describes the day when, three months after she bought it, she noticed a "perfect little alien head" inside the bong that was visible only under the right light. Awesome. Joy pulls out the bubbler only on special occasions, and when she does, "I lay down the rules. Take off your rings. You're not going to be anywhere around tile or wood. You have to be on carpet. I'll cry if I break this."
Joy isn't her real name, of course. She might get busted if her name was published, given that she admits she's committing felonies. It's not hard to find stoners it just takes a bit of chatting with the customers of Phoenix and Tempe head shops. (To allow for candid discussion, New Times agreed to keep secret the names of several pot-smokers who talked for this story, including two head shop employees. First and last names mean the person agreed to be quoted. Just a first name means the person preferred to stay anonymous.)
A Phoenix real estate agent in her mid-20s, Joy grew up in a small Arizona town, the daughter of hippie parents who had many pot-smoking friends. She also considers herself a hippie, but that describes more how she feels inside than it does her appearance. Really, she's more like a yuppie. She owns a house and says she makes about $40,000 a year. She tries not to be stoned when taking a work-related phone call, knowing she won't be on top of her game. Usually, she sparks up at the end of the day, when she can "just chill," and she uses a less-sentimental $60 bubbler.
Like other smokers interviewed for this article, Joy struggles to describe what it is about pricey paraphernalia that attracts her. There's no single reason. Part of it is her view of herself as a "high-functioning" pothead. Maybe it's just her own prejudice or maybe she's been smoking the really good stuff but she believes stoners who use bland metal pipes instead of quality glass are probably the same clumsy, lazy, and stupid types who give ganja smokers like her a bad name.
"They don't go and buy stuff they want to take care of," Joy says. "They don't care if it gets fucked-up."
Joy is attuned to the art of bongs those for which artisans "have put their blood and sweat in it." Quality glass instruments make the experience of smoking even better and make her pastime seem special. She spent her late teens around pot smokers who'd "make [arty bong] pieces and take pride in them," she says. "That was somehow passed down to me."
Joy used to own a four-foot-tall bong that set her back $320 but her friend broke it during a smoke session. She likes to pop in the head shops around town to look at the latest creations, and hopes to build her collection.
"I'd like to have a shelf area," she says. "Then I can put them away and know they are going to be okay."
Tom, an employee of a local head shop, sits in his small Tempe apartment on a recent afternoon, inhaling marijuana smoke through one of his favorite bongs. His living room is sparsely decorated: He's got a medium-sized television, an inexpensive couch, a coffee table and a few chairs. When he pulls out his three very special bubblers, his priorities become clear. He estimates the pieces cost him about $1,200 altogether. They are the closest things to art he owns.
His friend Bill comes over, toting a tall bong in a carrying case. He also works in a head shop and likes to chat about the benefits of glass over plastic, water filtration over raw smoke. They're both in their early 20s, and they say they've been smoking for years, often daily.
"The fact that it's illegal is the only thing keeping this from becoming a full-blown hobby for me," Bill says.
But pot has its downsides. Bill says it's one reason his college plans are stalled (he hopes to get back on track one way or another). He's having fun in the meantime. Bill and Tom say they like to get buzzed and relax, play video games, or go to action movies.
"Did you see 300?" Bill asks Tom with a knowing smile.
"I saw 300," Tom says, nodding happily, leaving the obvious part unspoken they watched it waaaaasted.
Mike came to a Tempe head shop last month to pick up his $280 orange "chalice," which was in for repairs. He says he graduated a couple of years ago from Arizona State University with a degree in biology, and he admits to using marijuana for years. He seems sober and well-spoken. He's a little weird. He says he spends hours at home, sometimes, cleaning his collection of glass pipes. He's built about 30 little pipe reamers out of paper clips and coat hangers, each designed to clean a particular pipe.
He hasn't used his chalice in months, and was excited to smoke out of it. The top two feet of the glass bong's main tube is curved to allow its user to sit back and relax while taking a hit. Unique bongs like his are attention-grabbers and contribute to the more social side of marijuana use. Mike says his chalice is part of his living room décor, which makes sense because it's often in use.
"Everyone wants to see it and try it," he says.
Mike says he has no illusions he checks the peephole for cops before opening the front door. But he claims the gaudy bong makes him feel like pot-smoking is more accepted by the wider world, that appreciation for good pot and good bongs is a respectable aspect of overall Valley culture especially among his college friends.
"We're not hiding," he says.
Every few weeks, a head shop will get a phone call, or maybe some dorky dude will drop in. That person will want to talk about bongs, and he will want to talk about smoking weed in them.
"There are two types of people who talk like that," says one store's employee. "Cops and idiots."
That's why owners and employees of head shops are programmed to insist that the glass pipes and bongs sold at the dozens of head shops in the Valley are tobacco accessories. They could be prosecuted if someone could prove they knew their products would be used for smoking marijuana or another illegal drug.
Yet, of course, that's exactly what the products are used for. Nobody uses a bong or a glass pipe to smoke tobacco, except maybe a bored stoner.
For years, head shops have walked a fine legal line, and for decades in Arizona, there's been no real trouble.
In the head shop rumor mill, people believe the shops have had political protection. That's because the biggest chain of head shops in Arizona, Trails, is owned by Arthur Kruglick, whose father, Burt Kruglick, was once a big player in the state's Republican Party. But it's debatable whether the elder Kruglick a man in his 80s who, last year, left his post as the Arizona Racing Commissioner ever had or used any such power. Arthur Kruglick declined to comment for this article.
Another rumor says that, perhaps because of the growing indiscretion of head shops, some kind of law enforcement action may be on the horizon.
Robert Vaughn, a Tennessee lawyer considered a national expert on paraphernalia, compares the federal law on bongs to pornography statutes: Bongs are illegal, but enforcement is based on community standards.
Bong manufacturers who ship their products out of state are at greater risk to be busted because the community standard where the products end up could be much different from that where they're made. Pennsylvania and Iowa, in particular, have a bent against bongs and helped orchestrate raids of paraphernalia-makers across the country in 2000 and 2003.
Operation Pipe Dream in 2003, the nation's most recent major paraphernalia bust, swept up comedian Tommy Chong, who served nine months in federal prison for selling bongs on the Internet. Fifty people were arrested, including three who ran a glass pipe-making shop in Phoenix called Stone Artworx.
At the time, local store owners worried they would be next. But, you could say, business is really smokin' again these days.
Operation Pipe Dream taught head shop owners and paraphernalia-makers to be more careful about sales on the Internet, where it's difficult to enforce the over-18 age requirement to buy smoking accessories.
The federal government likely won't do anything about head shops in the foreseeable future, says former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton. That doesn't mean he and others who believe marijuana is harmful enjoy seeing bongs sitting unscathed on store shelves.
"Marijuana is becoming much more accepted," he says. "And it's a shame, because there are studies that show the use of marijuana among young people had, at one point in time, decreased. But if popular culture displays marijuana use as hip and cool, then I think you're going to see those numbers go the other direction."
While the shops probably don't have to worry, buyers sure do.
It seems lots of folks are mistaking Tempe for the Southwest's answer to Amsterdam's Leidseplein district. All that openness and freedom concerning marijuana . . . Yeah, it's an illusion.
So far this year, Tempe police alone have made more than 900 arrests for drug paraphernalia. None of them was at a head shop. Most of the people arrested were out and about in the pedestrian-friendly city, smoking marijuana in a public place, says Officer Brandon Banks, Tempe PD's spokesman. Usually, police are responding to a person calling about a suspected smoker, he says. If that smoker is still there when the cops show up, it's mug-shot time.
Happens about three times a day.
Almost always, the bust involves a small, portable glass pipe; many cases involve dangerous drugs like meth or crack. Banks says the numbers have been decreasing in the past three years because of street enforcement.
"People finally realize, 'Hey, we shouldn't be using drug paraphernalia," Banks says.
If you are busted for paraphernalia, a cop will likely cite you for two potential felony charges: possession of both the pipe and the marijuana being smoked. As long you plead guilty and agree to a state brainwashing program (drug treatment includes pee tests and anti-drug classes), the charges will be dismissed and you won't have a record. You won't go to prison unless you're the kind who can't stay out of trouble. In 1996, voters banned the government from jailing someone for pot possession until a fourth arrest, provided that person stays clean while on probation.
The message is clear: Leave the pipes and bongs at home, where your chances of getting busted are next to nil.
Watching the dozen or so pipemakers hard at work at the Chameleon Glass factory in North Phoenix, it's hard to believe a war on drugs was ever waged in this country.
Melissa DeNova, 25, has worked in the shop for two years and is going through a glass-blowing apprenticeship. Today, she's wearing her didymium glasses and a purple kerchief as she prepares to make a glass pipe. Holding a glass rod tipped with gold in front of a gas torch, she "fumes" the gold onto another piece of glass, which turns metallic pink. She gives it a twist to make the colors spiral and carefully shapes the pipe's bowl and handle. Using one rod like a pencil, she melts a piece of molten glass into a tiny dragonfly shape. Then she pops a hole in the side of the bowl that will be used for clearing smoke from the implement one of the hallmarks of a pot pipe.
It's a sweaty job, but it pays well, she says, declining to say exactly what she makes.
"I just love the craft it's very fun," DeNova says.
The glass factory, owned by Ken Kulow of Phoenix, cranks out hundreds of glass pipes each day, most of which are shipped out of state. The majority of the pipes will retail for less than $50, but they're still nicer than the wood and metal pipes of old. They change color when used though, as mentioned before, they're all destined to turn brown with resin unless cleaned.
In another nod to Operation Pipe Dream, Kulow says fancy hookahs are made at the shop but no bongs.
Kulow also owns the two Blaze tobacco accessory stores (you'd call them head shops) in Tempe and Phoenix. He hires glass-blowers to make custom bongs at the stores, but he says those are never sold over state lines.
Kulow explains that, for years, U.S. pipemakers have been helped by restrictions on imports of glass pipes and bongs from India and China. That's slowly changing, but domestic glass blowers still have an edge in part because of demand for high quality, he says.
Glass blowers told New Times that techniques involving borosilicate glass (the substance in Pyrex products) really took off in the 1990s, helping fill a growing demand for nice-looking glass bongs that don't break easily. Bong-making as an art form grew in popularity, but many artists were scared out of the industry after the 2003 raids. That ushered in a new breed of wanna-be scientists/glass blowers who wanted to make bongs work better.
New-style bongs that employ more inner chambers and perforated stems to cool and filter more of the smoke began to show up about three years ago. Supposedly, they allow a user to take a hit that is larger but not as harsh on the lungs.
With the popularity of pharmaceuticals and drugs like Ecstasy on the rise, it's a widespread notion that marijuana's out of fashion among young adults something old hippies use. That couldn't be further from the truth.
Kulow says college-age people are the biggest buyers of glass accessories, and he notes the local supply of fine paraphernalia has not coincidentally grown right along with ASU. No doubt, the mainstreaming of marijuana culture is not part of ASU President Michael Crow's plan to create a "New American University." But one result of a bigger college has been a major upturn in the number of Tempe head shops.
It's not just Tempe. Looking across the Valley, it's obvious that head shop owners know their market. Many have located within a mile or two of ASU West or one of the county's community colleges. Several new shops have sprouted in the Valley in the past few years the trend is just more noticeable in Tempe because the city is so concentrated.
There's Sayegh's new shop near Gus's Pizza and the Devil House. Near Pita Jungle on Apache Boulevard, expensive bongs line the walls at a shop called Vishions. Similar products can be found at Hippie Gypsy, the Graffiti Shop, Trails, and the Headquarters. And that's just downtown Tempe. Farther south on Mill Avenue, you'll find a few more Blaze and two smaller, less-fancy stores, the Coughing Canary and A&A Smoke Shop.
The swamped marketplace has put a damper on the more expensive products at High Society in south Sunnyslope, which also offers custom blown-glass bongs, says owner Jim Meyer.
"In Tempe, near ASU, they've got daddy's money, so they like the high end," Meyer says.
Alex Sabino, manager of Coughing Canary, says the store stays in business by selling cigarettes, blunt wraps, and other small items, but he's surprised at the big demand for glass bongs.
"Every week, we sell a piece that's about $160 or so," he says.
Though Sabino doesn't allow the word "bong" uttered in his shop, anyone who walks in would know right away he's selling drug paraphernalia, thanks to all the posters and T-shirts displaying marijuana leaves. It's All Goodz sells pants that feature a special pocket for illicit stash. Vishions has a big neon "420" sign on its storefront window. Trails sells case after case of nitrous oxide and the equipment to inhale it. Blaze sells salvia for $45 a gram, a legal drug that reportedly produces a short, intense and sometimes unpleasant sensation when smoked.
The head shops' niche is their bad-boy image, and it's understandable why many folks even some stoners wouldn't be caught dead in such places.
But even the most strait-laced person would be impressed by some of the glass art in these stores. It's All Goodz looks something like an art gallery, with its most intricate pieces resting in prominent, freestanding glass cases. The thousand-dollar bongs may take months or years to sell, but meanwhile, the stores advertise the abilities of the artists, not to mention the store's focus on quality.
Karen Goldinov, owner of One With Glass Studio & Gallery in Scottsdale, says she waffles on the issue of marijuana's legality. However, sometimes she looks at the pictures artist send her of exquisitely made bongs and says, "Wow!"
"It takes a lot of artistic vision, a lot of talent to create that," she says. "It's not something that just anybody can sit down and do."
She confirms that many skilled glass artists make bongs, but they don't draw attention to those works in the larger glass art community for fear of losing credibility. She says they shouldn't worry about it, that the finest bongs or pipes should be featured in galleries or art shows.
That may yet happen. The demand for quality bongs is growing like the selectively bred, super-potent weed that users put in them.
If glass bongs became widely acceptable as art, marijuana culture would move further into the mainstream. Propagandists like the U.S. drug czar would holler before TV cameras.
Most people would yawn.
Either because they'd smoked too much pot that evening or because they consider marijuana a far more benign drug than alcohol. That is, they don't consider it a pressing problem.
Get the Weekly Newsletter