If you frequent your local smoke shop, you may have experienced a conversation like this. There remains a cloud of confusion around bongs, and no, not that type of cloud. We’re talking about the uncertainty around whether or not it is legal to purchase bongs. After all, aren’t they used for illegal things (aka smoking pot)?
Well, yes, yes indeed they usually are. But rest assured, ordering a new glass bong or “water pipe” on CaliConnected, or from any other online smoke shop, is completely legal. It will not land you in handcuffs, unlike weed legend Tommy Chong when he starred in 2003’s “Operation Pipe Dreams.”
Operation Pipe Dreams
No, that is not a stoner comedy classic. Operation Pipe Dreams was an investigation by the Bush administration that targeted businesses selling drug paraphernalia, like Chong’s bong business. Politics was considered the central motivation behind the investigation, and the estimated cost of Operation Pipe Dreams was a whopping $12 million and included the resources of 2,000 law enforcement officers. As a result of the operation, the US government raided hundreds of businesses and homes. How many offenders were incarcerated in the end? Just one: Tommy Chong.
Chong was charged for his role in financing and promoting Chong Glass Works, which specialized in selling high-end bongs as collectible works of art. The DEA set up an elaborate sting operation cornering Mr. Chong’s small glass business and employing vast resources and undercover agents posing as smoke shop owners. Tommy Chong served time in prison for 9 months and was forced to take a years-long hiatus from his favorite herb due to probation.
Chong says he was constantly drug tested, far more than expected for an individual who committed a similar offense, with the expectation that he would slip up and partake in cannabis. However, he successfully completed his probationary period and was able to end his long tolerance break. The DEA tried to make an example out of Chong, but their expensive and politically-motivated initiative simply elevated him from weed legend to weed hero. Comparing his experience with the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Chong concluded, “The only weapons of mass destruction they found were my bongs.”
The Federal prosecution that sentenced Chong to prison admitted that they were stricter on him because of his celebrity role in trivializing drug use in his movies. Chong served 9 months in prison and became the poster child for the illegality of selling drug paraphernalia.
Legal Glass Bongs vs. Illegal Drug Paraphernalia
Fundamentally speaking, a glass pipe, vaporizer, or any other smoking contraption cannot be deemed as drug paraphernalia until it is used with an illegal substance. Had Chong’s bong business been vigilant in attaching a “For Tobacco Use Only” stipulation to their products, he might have had more success in his legal defense. While bongs are commonly associated with marijuana, believe it or not, many people use them to smoke tobacco as well as other legal herbs and concentrates. It is for this reason that smoke shops are not actually selling “drug paraphernalia.” They are selling water pipes, glass tobacco novelty pipes, herb/spice grinders, and small jewelry bags.
These characterizations are why most smoke shops have strict rules banning certain references to illegal drugs, such as “bong.” Head shops are legally selling items like glass bongs during this era of Marijuana Prohibition for the same reason that it was completely legal to buy and sell shot glasses and wine glasses during Alcohol Prohibition in the early 20th century when liquor was illegal. Shot glasses could be used for wheat grass shots, wine glasses for sparkling cider; just like you can use a bong for tobacco. So, the glass pipe itself is not illegal if it's brand new and has no traces of illegal substances. But the moment a pipe or bong is used with the intent to ingest/inhale or otherwise introduce an illicit substance into the body, it qualifies as illegal.
Unfortunately for Chong and other smoke shop owners who were around to feel the effect of Operation Pipe Dreams, the law was not as clear as it is now. Items like bongs are not considered “drug paraphernalia” by the federal government until there is concrete evidence that one planned to use said item in an illegal manner. Such evidence would qualify as a violation of federal law as well as a violation of some states’ laws that have not legalized cannabis use. Common proof that law enforcement would need to incriminate would be the presence of illicit drugs with the paraphernalia, or resin containing THC within smoking devices. Once this proof is available to authorities, and they can document and prove with a presumptive test that it is genuinely an illegal substance, then the possession of a bong also becomes possession of drug paraphernalia.
Is Buying Bongs Online Legal in your State?
When it comes to individual state law, regulations surrounding drug paraphernalia offenses can vary and differ from federal law. For example, Washington state has had more specific characterizations of illegal items and even lists scales and balances intended to weigh controlled substances as off-limits for their citizens.
Consequences of possession and sale of paraphernalia are also a mixed bag. Take Ohio, where drug paraphernalia possession is a fourth-degree misdemeanor (punishable by up to 30 days of jail time plus a fine), but dealing in paraphernalia is a misdemeanor of the second degree (up to 90 days in jail plus a larger fine). Many states require shops to obtain a tobacco license if they intend to sell glass pipes and similar products in order to characterize these items as compliant with both state and federal law.
While most states consider paraphernalia distribution as a misdemeanor, some states justifiably punish it as a felony if it involves selling the items to minors. It is a smart choice to become familiar with your state’s regulations when considering purchasing a product online that could be later regarded as drug paraphernalia.
What’s the Legal Age to Buy Glass Pipes & Bongs?
Laws are still changing and constantly evolving around our industry as policy makers struggle to differentiate the cannabis industry from their war on big tobacco. In early 2020, federal law mandated that all purchases from online smoke shops would be limited to persons 21 or older. They enforced the new policy by requiring online head shops and other related industries to implement a strict age verification process that validates the age of every customer before allowing them to checkout.
Buying bongs and glass pipes is even more suspect when shopping online. Many customers voiced concerns that they may get in trouble or be flagged due to entering personal information into an age verification system. The age verification process does not, and will not, land you on some list monitored by the government. Instead, it uses your name and address to verify with public records that you are the age you claim to be at the time of checkout. To remain compliant, CaliConnected has partnered with AgeChecker which is a private company that is in no way affiliated or obligated to report purchases to federal or local governments. In fact, they have no record of what you even ordered!
Finals Thoughts on Buying Bongs Online:
If it’s your first time ordering a bong, vaporizer, or pipe online, you have nothing to fear. Simply ordering a bong online will not get you into trouble unless (and until) you are using it to break the law. Buying a burlap sack? Perfectly legal. Drawing a dollar sign on that burlap sack, then filling it with cash while robbing a bank? Likely not.