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A head shop is a retail outlet specializing in tobacco paraphernalia used for consumption of tobacco, legal highs, legal party powders and New Age herbs, as well as counterculture art, magazines, music, clothing, and home decor; some head shops also sell oddities, such as antique walking sticks and sex toys.
Products offered typically include pipes; pipe screens; bongs (usually referred to as water pipes); cigarette clips; vaporizers; rolling papers; rolling machines; scales; blacklight-responsive posters; incense; cigarette lighters; and legal highs such as whipped-cream chargers (which contain nitrous oxide) and Salvia divinorum (illegal in some countries and some US states).
American head shops originated in the 1960s in cities with high concentrations of college-age youth, often growing out of independently owned poster or candle stores. Historically, US head shops proliferated on St. Mark's Place in New York City's East Village, in West Los Angeles, in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and in Chicago's Old Town. Sources cite the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street in San Francisco as the first head shop in the United States. Operated by United States Army veteran Ron Thelin and his younger brother Jay, it opened on January 3, 1966. Four months later Jeff Glick opened "Head Shop" on East Ninth Street in New York City. Also in 1966, The Birmingham Balloon Company opened at 113 Fry Street Denton, Tx. Head shops served as an important outlet for underground newspapers and the underground comix of Robert Crumb and other counterculture cartoonists, which had little access to the established channels of newsstand distribution. The shops' popularity eventually waned with the aging of that era's baby boomer generation, and with the retail mainstream discovering and co-opting aspects of that market niche, such as acid rock and eco-friendly products.
Head shops exist and are legal in Ireland, and were reported by authorities to be opening at a rate of one per week in January 2010. The legality of the shops was discussed in the Irish Senate and a motion was passed requesting the Government to regulate the sale of products. Some politicians were in favour of outlawing the shops while others argued this would be a "huge mistake" which would allow illegal street dealers to thrive.
During early 2010, many incidents of firebombing and arson against head shops took place around the country. Some attacks were traced to disgruntled drug dealers. One petrol bomb attack occurred in the home county of the then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, and hours later, plans for legislation for regulation of head shops got underway.
Many head shop products became illegal in Ireland on 23 August 2010 when the new Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 became law. The Act empowered Gardaí (Irish police) to seek court orders to close head shops suspected of selling drug-like products, with the onus on the owners to prove they are not doing so.
In the United States, head shops are legal so long as they sell items used for legal substances. The sale of certain tobacco paraphernalia is considered legal in all states, but is illegal on a federal level.
Head shops have been targeted by the Drug Enforcement Agency. In 2003, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft indicted fifty-five people on charges of selling drug paraphernalia in Idaho, Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio as part of Operation Headhunter and Operation Pipe Dreams. During the investigation, government officials also targeted customers of the shops, arresting those who were in possession of drugs like marijuana and heroin.
Notably, in the state of Florida, glass water pipes "designed for use in ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing cannabis, cocaine, hashish, hashish oil, or nitrous oxide into the human body" are illegal, while "pipes primarily made of briar, meerschaum, clay, or corn cob" are legal.
To combat drug paraphernalia laws, head shops place signs stating that the products sold are "for tobacco use only" or "not for use with illegal substances". In many head shops, a sign will be posted (and often reiterated verbally) stating that customer references regarding the use of the shop's products for illegal drug use will result in suspension of all sales for that time period, and/or removal of the customer from the shop. In some shops, simply saying the word "bong" is grounds for removal from the shop.
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