The marijuana legalization debate drags on, but the head shop business is booming

Matt Saville is the co-owner of Botany Bay, 420 New Circle Road. His stepmother, co-owner Ginny Saville, was one of the original head shop owners in Lexington.
Matt Saville is the co-owner of Botany Bay, 420 New Circle Road. His stepmother, co-owner Ginny Saville, was one of the original head shop owners in Lexington.

While legislators consider whether to legalize marijuana in Kentucky — medicinal or recreational — there’s one marijuana-related business that is already thriving in Lexington: Head shops.

Head shops are purveyors of glassware for bongs, storage containers that quash the scent of bud, and alternative herbal products. Such products might have a bit of marijuana’s active ingredient in them, but by Kentucky law, it’s a miniscule amount.

Victor David runs three head shops in Lexington, all called The Head Shed.

Among head shop owners, that makes him something of a local mogul. He’s personable and is proud of his stores, but there’s one word you cannot mention to him: marijuana.

Defined as businesses that sell drug-related paraphernalia, head shops are plentiful across Kentucky, often selling not just marijuana-related accessories but offering e-cigarette kits, body jewelry and piercings.

Finding a list of Kentucky head shops online is as simple as typing in a few key words or going to the website

Head shops started in San Francisco and New York in the mid-’60s and have long been considered a haven for counterculture items outside of pipes. The origin of the term “head stop” is disputed and could refer to the fans of the Grateful Dead — Deadheads — but perhaps more likely can be traced to the early 20th-century practice of referring to addicts as “heads.”

The way head shops explain themselves can be playful: Botany Bay, named for the Australian penal colony and Khan’s ship in “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan,” has a particularly happy explanation of its business model: “The place to buy stuff to do things with.”

The Head Shed calls its wares “bad ash stuff.”

Purple Haze, which has stores on New Circle and Versailles roads, has a name that evokes the classic 1970 Jimi Hendrix song: “Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why/excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

Purple Haze, 635 New Circle Road in Lexington. Charles Bertram

In a stretch of New Circle Road running from Winchester Road to Russell Cave Road, potential customers can find three head shops: Botany Bay, Purple Haze and The Head Shed. That doesn’t include a tobacco shop/liquor store near PDQ market.

Purple Haze’s owner, Virginia Bates, couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. Despite repeated requests, Lexington police didn’t comment on the department’s relationship with the city’s head shops.

David of The Head Shed is emphatic that he doesn’t sell marijuana products, nor does he have anything to do with marijuana, nor does he want to discuss marijuana and its potential legalization.

He sells the herb kratom (which has been used in folk medicine as a stimulant, a sedative and a painkiller and isn’t illegal in the United States), cannabinoid-infused gummies at $17.99 a pack, e-smoking products, and tightly sealed tiny containers and bags that are marketed for not sharing the smell of your smoking product. The Head Shed also sells terpenes, essential-oil building blocks used in the production of cannabinoids in varieties including sativa and hybrid.

There’s also a small bin of Laffy Taffy at the Harrodsburg Road store, but that’s just a regular sugary treat.

The Head Shed, 409 New Circle Road in Lexington. Charles Bertram

At David’s Harrodsburg Road store, one wall is dedicated to glass, and it features elaborately crafted and expensive bongs, some so pretty they’re almost a decorative statement piece. A glass bong resembling a cat costs $500. Buy it, and what you use it for is up to you.

You have to be 18 to get in, 21 to buy at the Head Shed. IDs are checked, David said. The Harrodsburg Road store is only a bit removed from Smoke Palace on Lane Allen Road, which is described as “a one-stop smoke shop for all your tobacco use-only accessories.”

Originally from Illinois, David is a newbie in the Lexington head shop business, compared with Ginny Saville of Botany Bay, the grande dame in the Lexington head shop business.

Saville, who calls herself the “benevolent dictator” at Botany Bay, is a bit of a Kentucky celebrity for her advocacy of alternative products. She is recognized around Lexington and once was recognized at the Waffle House in London, she said.

“I never worry about competitors,” she wrote in an email. “I just try to keep beating myself all the time, and we work hard to stay on top of the industry and the movement. We are proud to play an active role in changing the public policy surrounding cannabis in Kentucky.”

Pipes for sale at Botany Bay at 420 New Circle Road in Lexington. The state drug enforcement office says as long as they’re keeping within the minuscule limits of active chemical allowed in products such as gummies, water and cannabinoid-infused coffee, they can sell it. Charles Bertram

“I’ve worked hard to present ourselves as respectable members of the community, and give a positive face to our culture. And it seems to be working.”

Saville started Botany Bay in 1996 with $3,500.

“I bought a bunch of hemp goods — backpacks, wallets, lotions — made from paper, cloth and hemp oil-based body care to try to help educate the public that there’s more to cannabis than just smoking,” she said.

While Lexington’s head shops do brisk business, the Kentucky legislature has two bills filed this year to legalize medical marijuana: HB166 and SB80.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Dan Seum, R-Fairdale, would allow for possession, growth and processing of cannabis, although it would keep those younger than 21 from entering “cannabis establishments” and would prohibit smoking in public while driving. Seum said legalizing and taxing marijuana for adult use could create jobs and could generate $100 million a year in new revenue for the state.

The House bill, sponsored by 14 members, would allow for medical marijuana consumption. Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes is among those endorsing that bill. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Rep. John Sims, D-Flemingsburg, one of the sponsors, called it “the best bill in the United States of America for medical cannabis.”

Saville said that no matter what the legislature does this year, she is open to expanding to marijuana sales when it’s legalized in Kentucky, which she considers inevitable. In fact, she believes legalization of medical marijuana is more likely this year, but after that, recreational marijuana is likely to follow within a few years.

“Talking about straight-out legalization has helped people soften their tune on medical marijuana,” Saville said. “I think it (legalization) could come pretty quick.”

Saville’s store stocks CBD — another name for cannabidiol, one of at least 113 active cannabinoids indentified in cannabis — in every form except buds, including products for pets. She said people came to her shop from Paducah to shop for Christmas. Her store is arranged for age differences, she said, and it includes jewelry and piercing.

The difference between CBD and THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, another one of the 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis — is that CBD is “not like smoking marijuana; it’s more inert,” said Shanna Babalonis of the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research at the University of Kentucky.

“The element that we’re actually talking about that makes things illegal and legal is THC,” Bababalonis said.

Products that include more than a miniscule amount of THC are illegal for sale in Kentucky and other states that don’t have recreational marijuana, Babalonis said, but “you’re just relying on the label and shop to tell you,” and labels might be unreliable.

Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said a 2015 bill failed to move kratom into the scheduled medication class: “A lot of users of kratom feel it helps with opioid withdrawal. For people that use it, there’s a lot of passion about it.”

CBD products “are in a kind of a gray area,” Ingram said. “The problem is, we don’t have the time or resources to test every product that’s out there.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman