Fashion companies have long gone to court in efforts to block the import of cheaply made knock-off purses, sneakers and sunglasses.
Now, one company is going to court to protect the integrity of an unlikely high-end product: The bong, a device that an industry acutely aware of its association with smoking marijuana prefers to call a water pipe.
RooR, well-known in the counter-culture scene for crafting fine glass pipes and selling all manner of smoking goods, has filed over 60 trademark lawsuits against Florida smoke shops and convenience stores the company says has sold imposters at cut-rate prices.
The trademark lawsuits, filed in South Florida federal courts in the past few months, target businesses with names such as Half-Baked Smoke Shops, Token Smokin’ and White Wizard. The effort is part of a bigger campaign by RooR’s national distributor against bogus bongs, with scores of similar lawsuits filed in California and New York too.
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“This is junk – with our client’s name right on the face of it,” said lawyer Peter Ticktin, inspecting a $25 bootleg bong bought at a Miami flea market. “If they want to sell cheap glass like this, let them. But don’t steal my client’s name by putting it on garbage like this.”
With more and more states approving legal sales of pot, with Florida just this week joining the medical-use cannabis club, the market for water pipes is expanding as well. The lawsuits offer a window into a little-known niche market and the growing friction between high-end manufacturers and artists, and sellers of low-grade fakes believed to originate in China and India.
Owners of some small smoke shops definitely aren’t chill with the legal threats. At least two in South Florida are challenging RooR, saying the company has no legal standing because the pipes – while ostensibly marketed for tobacco use – are actually illegal under Florida and federal drug laws, something the company denies.
“Let them come into court and prove it’s not drug paraphernalia,” said Miami lawyer Michael Wolf, who is representing two stores being sued for selling fake RooRs. “It seems to be that if they want to protect their trademark, they have better ways to go about it than going after little convenience stores for tens of thousands of dollars.”
The legal battle comes as the marijuana industry is on the cusp of exploding into the mainstream. Last week, voters in California, Nevada and Massachusetts approved marijuana for recreational use, joining four other states plus Washington, D.C., with similar laws.
Florida didn’t go that far, but voters last week did approve a law that allows doctors to recommend full-strength marijuana as a treatment for a long list of conditions, including glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and cancer. It also authorizes Florida’s Department of Health to license growers, labs for extracting chemical components from the marijuana and dispensaries that sell the drug.
Even before the formal voter approval, Florida smoke shops have thrived, selling water pipes and other accessories — always with the caveat that items are to be used for tobacco products, not marijuana. Most shops display signs reminding customers to not talk about illegal drugs – and caution them to avoid the “B” word, or bong.
It’s all wink-wink, nod-nod, of course, a reflection of legal scrutiny of the industry. Florida lawmakers have tried for years to curb smoke shops.
In 2013, a newly formed group called the Florida Smoke Shop Trade Association successfully lobbied against a bill that would have made selling any pipes a misdemeanor. Instead, the bill that passed only outlawed “knowingly and willfully” selling pipes for drug use, something impossible to prove against cautious shop owners.
Most smoke shops offer a range of products, from incense to small hand pipes and increasingly, equipment some customers use to ingest marijuana extracts through vapor, not smoke. Colorful and intricately designed “heady” glass pipes are some of the most expensive offerings, with price tags reaching well over a thousand dollars.
Sold as “functional art,” glass pipes are hawked online and at expos featuring glass-blowing competitions. One is called the Glass Games. The work has even made in-roads into the fine-art community. Two years ago, despite grumbling from older glass artists, the Habitat Gallery in Palm Beach began incorporating pipes into their gallery and exhibitions.
“The sculptural side of pipes has really made an emergence in the past five to 10 years. Now, it’s coming into the mainstream,” said gallery owner Jay Scott. “We also saw it is as way to attracting a younger audience. The typical audience embracing a lot of these pipes are between 18 and 35 years old.”
But making living as a glass artist is not easy.
Orlando-area artist Raymond Wamsley produces between 500 and 600 “Sea Shakes” pieces a month, many of them winding twisty bongs with glass tinted bright hues of purple, pink and lime green, some adorned with a sunglasses-wearing bee known as “Buzzy.”
Wamsley sells in shops throughout Florida and the United States, and a few overseas. But in recent years, Wamsley – who crisscrosses the state to offer his wares – began noticing inferior-quality pipes bearing his brand sticker. One distributor even mockingly showed off a stolen design for his glass spoons; Wamsley was selling them for $12, and the knocks cost $3.
“Some smoke shops have high integrity, some don't,” Wamsley said. “And the wholesalers, they will take products by struggling artists, ship them to India or China and have them duplicated and sent back within days. It is really greedy.”
Law-enforcement efforts against counterfeits have been sporadic – although, earlier this year, a Seattle man accepted six months in jail for importing huge loads of pipes and other knock-off products from China.
The fakes have been become a major problem for bigger companies such as RooR, started by German glass artist Martin Birzle in the mid-1990s, which made its name pioneering scientifically engineered, sleek and elegant high-end glass pipes that have become collector favorites over the decades. The company touts four “Glass Cup” honors bestowed by High Times, the venerable chronicle of marijuana and drug culture.
“It is because of the recognized quality and innovation associated with RooR branded products that consumers are willing to pay higher prices for them,” lawyer Jamie Sasson wrote in one lawsuit.
Fans include a 29-year-old Dallas bartender who goes by the nickname “Lapis.” She and her boyfriend own nine high-end pipes, including an 18-inch RooR pipe bought for over $300. The glass chamber clears smoke quicker, delivering a more jolting high than other slow-dragging bongs, said Lapis, who smokes to ease anxiety and depression.
“You can definitely tell the difference when you’re smoking from something that costs more,” said Lapis, who asked her real name not be used because marijuana is still illegal in Texas. “Even with one of the best strains, it’s going to feel better coming from a RooR over some pipe you buy in a gas station.”
It’s precisely some of those gas stations, convenience stores and strip-mall smoke shops that stock the knock-off RooRs, which can normally run over $300 for products with names like IceMaster, Little Sista and Mr. Nice. At a smoke shop in a Liberty City flea market, the Herald found a bootleg 8-inch “bubbler” pipe for just $25. A real RooR of similar size costs at least $200.
At the Mystik Smoke Shop in Orlando, owner Matt Tersack used to sell legit RooR pipes.
But he had to give up his license because the knock-offs became so prevalent around town that little of his stock was selling. He said disreputable importers travel from shop to shop, offering RooRs that are obvious fakes – they come without boxes and weigh little, compared to the heavy Pyrex designs of the real products.
“I was the only smoke shop in Orlando licensed to sell RooRs, yet every shop in town had them on their shelves,” said Tersack, who is a member of the Florida Smoke Shop Association. “I couldn't compete. I was losing money and I tried explaining to customers the differences between the real and the fakes, but I wasn’t convincing them because it was double the cost.”
Two Florida companies believed to import the pipes, selling them to smoke shops in Central Florida, refused to talk to the Miami Herald.
The lawsuits have been filed by California-based Sream Inc., which holds the U.S. rights to manufacture and market the pipes for RooR. So far, most of them remain pending, although a few have settled for an undisclosed sum.
Wolf, the Miami lawyer who represents two stores accused of selling suits, said he offered to settle by agreeing to have his clients simply stop selling the products “The company is interested in getting their pound of flesh,” Wolf said. “They’re not willing to settle the cases.”
The pipe company’s lawyer insisted that the goal was to “clean up the market,” but acknowledged they wanted to get across the point that company isn’t just blowing smoke.
”We want to inflict a little bit of pain,” Ticktin said. “ We want them to know they better not mess with us and they better not mess with our clients. They need to learn their lesson. And when we do settle, they’re also agreeing to stop doing this in the future.”