Recently I spoke with Albert Balido, the Florida Smoke Shop Association’s lobbyist. I asked him to explain what the Florida Smoke Shop Association is, why it formed, about the so called Florida “bong ban” bill, and how medical and recreational marijuana legalization might impact Florida smoke shops.

“Hi, I’m Albert Balido and I’m the Florida Smoke Shop Association’s lobbyist in Tallahassee. I handle all things legislative, political, and the like for the group.

The Smoke Shop Association didn’t become an association until the bill from last session. 2 years before last session there was a bill that was passed by the legislature with very little opposition. The bill sort of planted the seeds for the Smoke Shop Association to become politically active. The bill basically regulated where pipes could be sold, they had to be a legitimate smoke shop that derived 75% of their revenue from the sale of tobacco and tobacco products. This was an attempt, basically a regulatory attempt, to shut down smoke shops.

The problem with that bill was that because you need audits to determine what percentage of your business is tobacco and what isn’t, it became fairly unworkable. Before the Smoke Shop Association was a formal group, it was basically a collaboration of about three dozen head shops through social media, and rather than contest the legislation in the session by hiring a lobbyist or going up and meeting with their representatives, many of the more active members at the time, on advice of their then lawyer, they came to the conclusion that they weren’t going to stop this bill from becoming law, so their best bet was to challenge it in the courts. Which they did, and it took two years and ultimately the challenge failed, the law was held constitutional by the courts, and its still on the books today, although, to date the state has not conducted a single audit. So its a pretty laissez-faire philosophy over there with this state. They tend to want to leave businesses alone, especially businesses that have good relationships with their local chambers of commerce and are active members in their local communities and charities, which most of these head shops do.

So fast forward now to last year, and very early on in the process, months before the legislative session,  House Bill 49 was filed. As it was written at the time it made it illegal to sell these in Florida at the retail level. It said nothing about ordering them online, or anything like that, because they kind of really can’t get to that. But it would prevent the sale of anything that is considered “drug paraphernalia” under the drug paraphernalia statute in the State of Florida, it made it a felony for a repeat offense in Florida to sell the item.

So this bill was not really moving anywhere, and at the beginning of the session it started to move and was heard in a committee. It passed unanimously, with Republicans and Democrats voting for it, but this time instead of waiting for the legislature to dictate to these head shops and then try to appeal it in the courts, they were looking for help and then one of them, Jay Work, who is the owner of Grateful J’s, which is a chain of head shops in south Florida, contacted me through a mutual friend and asked our firm whether we could help them at all. And at that time, the bill had already moved through 2 of it’s 4 committees. In this process, if you don’t get ahead of the game and make your position known to legislators early on, before bills are heard, its tough to then come in after people have voted for a bill, and try to stop it, or amend it, or change it, or make your position known. The legislators frown upon that, its sort of the old saying you know “lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”

Albert explained that an amended version of House Bill 49 did pass. I asked him if the bill that passed said the shops had to sell their smoking accessories for tobacco use only?

“It was a little bit more direct than that, the crime is an intent crime, you have to intentionally sell it as drug paraphernalia. And that burden of proof is very, very high because if you are not speaking of, or talking about, promoting or fostering an illegal activity, then no crime has been committed. What the legislature was trying to protect activities that are legal, while making sure what is currently illegal activities were not fostered or promoted.”

What impact would the passing of the medical and recreational marijuana legalization bills and ballot initiatives have on Florida smoke shops?

“Obviously if certain items that were previously illegal are made legal, I don’t know that it would necessarily increase or decrease sales, because I’m not an economist, but from a legislative or political perspective, I think their ability to operate their businesses without the threat of being shut down by a piece of legislation has become more remote. I think the chances of them facing a bill like House Bill 49 in the future are diminished, as there is wider acceptance for, not only marijuana, but the culture in general. Because head shops are seen, while they don’t sell any marijuana or anything like that, they’re seen as part of the culture, and I think they’ll be safer from legislation.”

As someone who spends a lot of time working in the state legislature, how do you think the marijuana bills and the medical marijuana ballot initiative will do?

“As a veteran of campaigns, this amendment has broad support across party lines, cultural, ethnic, and regional lines. It has broad based support, based on what I’ve seen, it looks like its going to pass. Coastal, rural, northern, southern, whites, blacks, Republicans, Democrats, it has over 60% support in polls across the state. I also think the Charlotte’s Web bill (Low-THC bill CS/SB 1030) is going to pass in the state legislature before this year’s legislative session ends.”

To find out more information about the Florida Smoke Shop Association, visit their website at: