Bongs Away

For nearly 30 years, the head shops on Haight Street have thrived peddling handblown glass pipes, three-foot Graffix bongs, rolling papers and roach clips to an avid clientele. Unfazed by the incursion of counter-counterculture stores like the Gap, the number of smoke shops keeps growing: In the past year, two stores have opened, bumping the total to 11.

But while the paraphernalia business enjoys high times, neighborhood groups say more head shops are a bad trip. Led by the Coalition Against Violence, an umbrella organization of several Haight Ashbury organizations, they're demanding that the smoke shops comply with the state Health and Safety Code, which essentially mandates the creation of separate rooms for displaying drug paraphernalia — similar to the cubicles in which video stores exhibit porno flicks. Advocates say such booths discourage minors from buying the wares.

Some members of the coalition, which includes both neighborhood groups and business associations, see a direct connection between drugs, violence and paraphernalia sales on Haight. “The people that come to buy paraphernalia are most likely going to buy drugs on the street. They are not helping the situation,” says Donna Grouse, president of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Coalition, a staffer at the 409 House (a community resource center) and a member of the Haight Ashbury Substance Abuse Organization.

“Most of the violence in the Haight is drug related,” says Karen Crommie, president of the 200-member CVIA. “Anything that contributes to the Haight as a center of drug traffic is a concern for our group.” In 1994, there were five nonfatal shootings and one fatal stabbing, all attributable to drug sales.

The head shop owners say they are doing their share to prevent minors from buying paraphernalia and see regulation as a burden to their business and a threat to the culture of the neighborhood, with its history as ground zero for the Summer of Love and all things hippie. James Preston, the owner of Positively Haight Street, says trying to control sales of paraphernalia to stop violence is like “putting a gate on the bridge because people are jumping off.”

The drug-gear debate surfaced last December. Jim Siegel, owner of Distractions, a store at Haight and Ashbury teeming with smoking accouterments, heard that Rasmi Zeidan, the owner of Frank's Tobacco Center, planned to open another smoke shop on the same block. As recently as last week, spoons and pipes were sold at Zeidan's store, located on Haight and Stanyan. “I thought it would be a sleazy move,” says Siegel, who has come out against narcotics like cocaine, speed and heroin. “I was afraid he was going to bring that shit down here.”

First Siegel tried to get Zeidan to endorse the same voluntary agreement that Siegel and owners of other paraphernalia stores had signed creating a self-imposed ban on selling crack pipes and the like. Zeidan refused, so Siegel warned Joe Konopka, now the spokesman for the Coalition Against Violence and the man behind the two-year-old neighborhood patrol group, Residents Against Druggies. Siegel also told Bill Hoover, the president of the merchants association, that “hard” paraphernalia was moving down Haight Street.

When the straitlaced and spoon-free Ashbury Tobacco Center opened its doors, Siegel laid off, satisfied that no one was selling the more objectionable paraphernalia. Mark Zeidan, who manages the Ashbury Tobacco Center, says his father willingly kowtowed to the community pressure to make the move easier, though he did not sign the agreement.

Meanwhile, Konopka was mobilizing his own crusade to force head shops to comply with the Health and Safety Code. “The regulations apply to everyone — the bad apple and the good apple,” says Konopka.

Konopka, who had recently organized the coalition as a “united front” to bring more beat cops and more bike cops to the Haight, brought up the Health and Safety Code in a coalition meeting and received approval to take the issue to a meeting with Mayor Jordan on April 14.

Siegel and the other smoke shops balked when they found out the mayor was planning a meeting concerning paraphernalia without their participation. Through Daniel Gray, the mayor's liaison to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, the mayor assured Siegel that there would be no talk of bongs at his meeting with the coalition.

Since that meeting, Gray has met with both Siegel and Konopka on the issue, and it appears the mayor's office will be passing the proverbial pipe. Gray's initial research indicates that in spite of the state Health and Safety Code, the city does not issue any regulatory permits that could be used to enforce it. And even if the mayor could regulate head shops or force them to comply with the code, according to Gray, Jordan has not made up his mind whether he will commit the resources to do so. “Personally, I'm not persuaded that enforcement is a major component in the health and safety of the neighborhood,” says Gray.

But Crommie, who has lived on the corner of Haight and Ashbury since “before the '60s,” is convinced that violence is worse than ever. She says enforcing the code and preventing more stores from selling paraphernalia would deliver a worthwhile, if token, message. “This is one small step on a broad front to attack the perception of this neighborhood as a drug supermarket,” she says.

Anthony Vondermuhll, a staff member at 409 House, says the violence problem in the area may be mostly a perception, since “a lot of the evidence is anecdotal.” Nonetheless, Vondermuhll advocates an amendment to the city's planning code to prevent more stores from selling paraphernalia. “How many stores does one neighborhood need?” asks Vondermuhll.

Siegal believes police curbed the violence associated with drug deals last year with sweeps of the Haight. “A year ago you couldn't move down any block on Haight without 10 people whispering, 'Buds. Doses.' Now you can walk the length of the Haight and maybe one person will offer.”

Gantt Galloway, a pharmacological researcher at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, says drug-related violence still exists in the Haight, but he is unconvinced that regulating head shops is the right starting point in curtailing violence. “I don't see many people out there mugging other people for marijuana money,” he says. “I sense some benefit [to Konopka's efforts] but it is a limited benefit.”

Konopka says the Coalition Against Violence will continue to look for ways to enforce the code. “You've got to start somewhere,” he insists. “You just can't do things business as usual if you want the problems to go away.

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