Get Your FREE Subscription to HQ Magazine!
Canna Aid

What Can We Say?

Re-Examining the Delicate Language of Head Shops

Words have meaning, but we all know that the meanings of words change over time. If you’re still not sure of that, the next time Christmas rolls around, have a listen to the classic yuletide tune, “Deck the Halls”.

But it’s not just a fact that the meanings of words evolve over time and through repeated usage; some words get eliminated from use all together, are forgotten, and then come up again in conversation and business, as social and legal mores among humans themselves change and evolve.

Whoa. What does that mean? Well to start out, here’s a little story about the words we use, can’t use, haven’t used, are forbidden from using and will surely use again … all as they relate to the humble smoke shop, hemp, and cannabis industries in the good old USA.

The OGs reading this article may recall a time between about 1965 and the late 70s when just about anything went, language-wise. Back in that before-time, smoke shops were known as head shops, because, like wow, man, that’s where you went to feed your, uh, head!

During this essentially pre-regulatory time, customers were free to walk around the store talking about hookahs, water pipes, and joints, but due to a strongly enforced federal law, the M-word was always strictly verboten. That prohibition has rung true until recently, when nationwide legalization efforts changed the rules of the word meaning game, again.

To counter the cruel linguistic situation caused by erasing the word “marijuana” and similar terms from the world of small business, folks like you and me relied on slang and hipster talk to get them through.

Back then, words like grass and herb and sasquatch (just kidding!) were being used as a code to talk about cannabis in retail situations where saying the M-word could literally bring the police and get you put in front of a judge. Eventually, however, the fuzz caught on and those words became taboo as well. By the 90s, any reference whatsoever to the sticky icky (even the word “bong”), whether coded or not, was likely to get you tossed straight out of your local head shop—which at that point, was more likely identified as an extra cool tobacco outlet. 

And just so you don’t have to go through such a heady experience yourself, dear reader, Headquest has done it for you … well, at least the judge part.

We talked to Leonard Frieling about the nature of those once forbidden words. Frieling is a former Colorado Judge who has acted as a cannabis advocate and is very knowledgeable about the evolving laws and language of the smoke shop.

He had a lot to say about how restrictions on language shape our ideas of what’s acceptable and what’s not, ultimately influencing the choices we make and maybe even the products we buy.

We reminded Frieling that something like that happened in 1970, when the feds began cracking down on personal marijuana use, gravely remembering that we know that in the 1970s head shops were bizarrely free in what they were doing; up until a point, that is.

Shops of that era sold all kinds of paraphernalia and didn’t seem to care about the legal nuances, but by the early eighties state legislation aimed at restricting language because it referred to illegal activities and substances became a common outcome for local and regional drug war efforts.

In quick order shop owners and consumers faced harsh language restrictions.

Here’s a simplified example: I have a screwdriver within reach. I can use it for a legal purpose, but if I stick it through somebody’s temple or into their carotid, it’s frowned upon. That’s an illegal purpose. Same screwdriver. So, if I have a store called 'Murder Weapons R Us' with racks of screwdrivers and hacksaws and sledgehammers and the like . . . I can’t define their use for an illegal purpose . . . I’m breaking the law if I do.

Frieling riffed on that historical context, reminding us all that it comes down to the law and how a law specifies its requirements by spelling them out. At the time this word-banning all went down, there was an aggressive drug war going on in America that targeted casual users of cannabis. Small businesses would regret any association with drug users, many lawmakers felt, and so their legislation began to demonize words by making their use illegal too.

“Here’s a simplified example,” Frieling told HQ, “I have a screwdriver within reach. I can use it for a legal purpose, but if I stick it through somebody’s temple or into their carotid, it’s frowned upon. That’s an illegal purpose. Same screwdriver. So, if I have a store called ‘Murder Weapons R Us with racks of screwdrivers and hacksaws and sledgehammers and the like . . . I can’t define their use for an illegal purpose . . . I’m breaking the law if I do.” He then draws the obvious comparison to pipes and their intended use, finishing with, “On the other hand, if my sign says ‘tobacco products,’ I’m okay.”

This sort of thinking was essential for survival in the past when federal enforcement of anti-cannabis laws was at its peak (think through the end of the 20th century and into about 2005), but what about today, when many smoke shops are catering to consumers who are buying and using perfectly legal cannabis products?

After our long talk with the judge, and after hearing his considered opinion about how words and their definitions mattered when talking about subjects related to cannabis, we thought the next thing we ought to know is how our readers, particularly our valued sponsors and business owners, feel about the law and the language.

If you own a smoke shop, do you say the words “cannabis” or “marijuana” while doing business? Is it okay to admit that a “bong” is a device used to smoke cannabis, or do the sanitizing words like “water pipe,” “tobacco,” and “tobacco products” still haunt your salesroom floor?

We’re keen to know your take on this continually evolving subject. In fact, we think your input is essential. Please click here to weigh in and help us compose the next volume of this series, slated for June of 2024.

 

Canna Aid

Recent Articles