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Smoke shops await new regulations

Photo/Max Green
Smoke shops facing tougher regulations. Photo/Max Green

Leaning over a glass countertop that houses row after row of brightly colored blown-glass pipes, Will Boyer’s eyes scan the pieces back and forth.

“These are bubblers, those are chillums,” he explains, pointing from one section of the case that stores water pipes to another that stores dozens of hollow, cylindrical smoking devices with a bowl on one end and a mouthpiece on the other.

Storefronts that sell tobacco accessories, like Ash’s Bucktown Smoke Shop where Boyer, a 23-year-old food service worker, peruses an array of delicately sculpted pipes, are awaiting the implementation of new rules and regulations from an ordinance passed at city hall last week. The ordinance, which will call upon Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to more proactively retrieve data from shops licensed to sell tobacco accessories—which include pipes, rolling papers, cigarette machines, wrappers and any other smoking-related devices—is still having its details hashed out.

At the city council meeting Ald. Tom Tunney (44th)—sponsor of the new ordinance—said that the city needs to begin differentiating between the kinds of licenses issued to convenience stores that sell cigarettes and head shops that obtain the majority, or even a significant margin of their profits, from selling tobacco accessories.

Currently any over-the-counter sale of tobacco accessories falls under a “retail license”, according to the City of Chicago’s licensing website. Tunney would like to see a different license required for businesses that primarily deal in smoking-related products. Tunney said that enlisting the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department would allow licensing regulations to be enforced by collecting better data about how much money shops are making from which products. Tunney also plans on tapping the Chicago Police Department to more aggressively keep track of businesses that have a felony history of selling tobacco-products to minors to prevent them from attempting to purchase the licenses.

While the proposal has passed, many of the details about a timeline and what specific current regulatory measures will change are hazy. Employees at shops like Smoke Times on Division Street, Smoke Shop on Damen Avenue and Up In Smoke on Milwaukee Avenue were unaware of the passing of the new ordinance and business owners did not return calls for comment.

An employee at Smoke Shop on Damen Avenue who requested she not be named said “the owner probably isn’t the one to talk to, he probably doesn’t know about this. I can’t even get a hold of him on a regular basis.”

One of the driving concerns Tunney cited at the meeting, agreed upon by  Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) and Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), was complaints lodged by residents living near the smoke shops in his ward and business owners who reported the shops attracting undesirable clientele.

“I think that whether or not shops like this bring crime to a neighborhood depends more on the state of the neighborhood that whether or not the shop exists,” Boyer said.

As someone who shops at different tobacco accessory storefronts around town, Boyer said that the criminal or “shady character” stereotype is not accurate.

“Completely normal peoples of all types come into these places for all kinds of things,” he said.

While consumers and business owners are still unsure of exactly what the new regulations will bring about or when they will be put into place, smoke shops sales and licenses will soon be under greater scrutiny in Chicago.

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