Head Shop History

Head Shop History

Photo of a smoke shop in black and white
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A head shop is a store where products of interest to cannabis users are sold.  This paraphernalia includes home décor, clothing, magazines, antiques, and cannabis accessories. The history of head shops in America dates back in the 1960s.   Although the origin of the name ‘head shop’ is not clear, it may have been coined from weed smokers’ way of referring each other as pot or weed heads.

The first shops were established in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, St. Mark’s Place, NY, and in Los Angeles.  The outlets gave hippies public spaces where they could showcase their lifestyles. More so, these outlets were designed to liberate potheads from ‘bondage’.

The San Francisco head shop was started by Jay and Ron Thelin as a Psychedelic shop in January 3, 1966.  It was founded at a time when the US was involved in the Vietnam War.  The Thelins believed that the psychedelics would help people cope with the war effects.  Many young people gathered at the store to take drugs as they discussed politics and religion.  Two months after the Haight-Ashbury store, the New York outlet opened.

Unlike normal business, the head shops existed for counter cultural purposes.  They provided a place for underground newspapers and comics for counterculture artists in the 1960’s. During this period, the head shops achieved political success.  For instance, they engineered the reform of American drug laws through donations and distribution of written materials.  However, the Thelins’ store attracted more young people to the Haight town which culminated into a crisis.  The town was now characterized by homelessness, violence, and use of hard drugs.

The Thelins’ business model inspired more shops across the country. However, these businesses took a more profit-oriented approach and downplayed their political engagements. In 1973, the Supreme Court allowed communities to pass laws which could outlaw drugs in their areas. As such, the head shops were outlawed in many states. Notwithstanding, more shops emerged in the late 1970’s and were estimated to be around 30,000 at the time.

The growth of the head shops despite the court ruling can be attributed to the birth of High Times magazine.  The magazine promoted the use of marijuana by featuring iconic figures in the music and art industries. As a result, it had printed 250,000 copies by its fifth issue. High Times also facilitated head shops through providing a communication channel for weed lovers.

The rise in popularity of the outlets drew increased attention of the government and parents. National campaigns against the drug culture were started by parent’s groups towards the end of the decade. To them, the head shops were illegal businesses.  Another blow to the drug outlets was the War on Drugs campaign by Ronald Reagan.  These aggressive measures saw many outlets close.

The shops resulted to only stocking T-shirts and drug paraphernalia.  Today, head shops are re-emerging, thanks to the decriminalization of marijuana in many states. In addition, the popularity of cannabis events is reviving the old business. To adhere to the strict laws, many shops display signs bearing disclaimers that their accessories are not to be used with illegal substances.

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