Posted: December 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm
By Conor Griffith, Elizabeth Hurst and James Yaria
In Morgantown drug paraphernalia is more accessible than a Happy Meal.
The downtown area is filled to the brim with “head shops” that legally sell the accessories to use marijuana, though the vendors officially state that their devices are for tobacco use only.
In the wake of the drug’s legalization in Washington and Colorado, weed has once again come to national attention and the social stigmas against using it seem to be evaporating. Within blocks of West Virginia University’s downtown campus, there are 10 places to buy drug paraphernalia while there are only five McDonald’s restaurants in the whole of the greater Morgantown area.
This green plant native to Asia is smoked in glass pipes called bongs, which carry a distinct odor resembling either skunk or Calvin Klein colognes, depending on who one asks. Around the Mountaineers’ hometown, it is routinely consumed at parties, Fall Fest and occasionally in the student section of Milan Puskar Stadium during football games.
The drug has forged an underground economic partnership between the legitimate businesses that sell paraphernalia and the illegal drug distributors.
Cool Ridge, Brownies, Smoke Zone, Glasslab and the Den are the more high-profile head shops downtown but they are not the only stores to cash in on the trade of these accessories. Businesses seemingly unrelated to the marijuana industry at first glance, like Ashebrooke Liquor Outlet and the Campus Canteen, have selections of bongs available in addition their usual products. Even adult entertainment stores like Mid Nite Adult on Spruce Street next door to the Monongalia County Magistrate Court engage in these lucrative transactions.
“Everyday we sell at least two water pipes. We get huge orders of 50 to 60 pipes at a time, and as soon as they arrive they’re off the shelves,” said Stephanie Mitchell, an employee at the Den headshop in downtown Morgantown.
Like all other head shops, the Den had to apply for a license from the City of Morgantown Finance Department in order to sell paraphernalia for controlled substances. These licenses state all sales and buyers must be recorded and these records are made available for the police for no less than two years.
“These pipes are for whatever people want to use them for. I sell them for tobacco use,” Mitchell said.
Owners of other head shops were contacted but refused to discuss any details of their business.
The other half of this partnership comes from the distributors that bring the pot into Morgantown.
“A college is a pot of gold when it comes to selling weed. What was a $750 investment for me is now a $40,000 business,” said a local marijuana distributor who identified himself only as “David.” He claims at least 1,000 people smoke the pot he brings into the state. “The beauty of the system is that all these head shops couldn’t survive without us. We’re talking about retailers selling $600 glass pieces and if there’s no weed, there’s nothing to put in them because nobody smokes tobacco out of a glass bongs.”
It should be no surprise that marijuana usage is higher in Morgantown because of age demographics. Sgt. Bryon Hennessey, an officer of the Morgantown Police Department of 18 years, said college students aged 18 to 24 are the most probable age group to experiment with pot thanks to the relative freedom and lack of responsibility the college life offers.
“Marijuana is as probably as readily available… as alcohol,” said Hennessey. “It’s so prevalent that we can actually write up a citation for it depending on the circumstances. Less than 15 grams is considered personal use for recreation so the court would handle that a little differently than if someone had more than 15 grams.”
Hennessey said local the consumption of weed comes and goes in waves and there have been no cases of head shops being busted for selling marijuana during his career with the MPD.
On a larger scale, the status of marijuana in the legal system may be nearing drastic changes.
Colorado recently passed Amendment 64, which will allow adults over 21 to purchase an ounce of weed from dispensaries and grow up to six plants at home for recreational use; sales would be taxed and regulated just as tobacco and alcohol. In Washington state voters passed Initiative 502, which carries similar qualities to Amendment 64. Both laws do not necessarily legalize the use of pot but rather “decriminalize” it, which is a polite way of “looking the other way.”
However federal law supersedes state law. This means marijuana use is still technically illegal and an army of lawyers may be needed for possible legal clashes between Washington, D.C. and the states. The case for legalizing the drug at the federal level for economic reasons is a strong one. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, released a report in October 2010 stating legalized marijuana sales could rake in about $8.7 billion annually if they were taxed at the same rate as alcohol and tobacco.
Many consumers would likely be overjoyed at the prospect of weed legalized on a federal level. What about others like David? Not so much.
“If weed is legal I make no money; the entire ring disappears because weed, which is worth more than gold illegal, becomes worthless legal because people can grow their own and the false inflation disappears,” David said. “If weed was legalized, a lot of people would be out of a job. Who gains most is the corporations, and that’s what scares me. Next thing you know, you’ll have weed with additives that’s grown cheaply and not as good.”
As far as David is concerned, full weed legalization would be very bad for people like him who use the weed money to pay for car insurance or student loans. With proper precaution, he said, the rewards of selling marijuana far outweigh the inherent risks. For him the status quo is most desirable.