In Colorado, marijuana is legal for anyone over the age of 21. In addition to this relatively new law, cannabis makers have been encouraged by a 2016 ballot initiative that allows people in Texas to manufacture and distribute their own weed without facing jail time. These changes have legitimized an industry once shunned as criminal activity.

Chris Vela twirls molten glass over a blazing flame in a fire dance. He compares the captivating effects to a bonfire, which he describes as a hypnotic incandescence.

Vela creates transparent electric green bubblers and gleaming salmon pink Sherlock pipes as a modern marijuana glass artist. He hollow-sculpted a real-life horned lizard skull — a fiery orange piece that was eventually attached to a bong of the same hue. 

Artists who create marijuana glass, also known as “heady glass,” and other smoking gadgets are emerging from the shadows, gaining a slew of Instagram followers – the “yellow pages” of cannabis – and selling top-tier works for thousands of dollars. Glassblowing, an old craft dating back to the 1st century BC, was given its own Netflix program in 2019 called “Blown Away.”

Vela, who resides in Beverly, is the curator for “Art of Glass,” a project by Catalyx Containers, a marijuana packaging business headquartered in Allston, that showcases these artists and their work as “real cultural relics of cannabis.”

However, the US Department of Justice deemed the technique illegal only two decades ago.

When the Department of Justice announced charges resulting from “Operation Pipe Dreams” in 2003, authorities referred to marijuana pipe manufacturers and dealers as “criminals” who would “poison our children.”

Glass artist Brandon Hall works on a piece in studio at Stoked smoke shop and glass gallery in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

During the $12 million nationwide operation, which comprised 2,000 law enforcement agents, hundreds of residences and businesses were searched.

At the time, John Brown, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, stated, “People peddling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different from drug traffickers.” 

Vela worked at a northern California pipe business that was raided by law authorities during Operation Pipe Dreams before coming to the East Coast. 

He added, “I’ve watched the full development of it, and I’ve had a lot of people go to prison for it, their whole life’s work ripped out from under them.” “Until now, when it’s so popular and in the spotlight.”

From ‘taboo’ drug paraphernalia to’mainstream’ art, there has been a transition.

Marijuana for recreational use is currently legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Twenty-seven states and territories have decriminalized marijuana, which means that small quantities used for personal consumption are treated as a civil or municipal violation rather than a felony punishable by prison time.

Marijuana sales in the United States are projected to reach $24 billion this year, despite the fact that it is still illegal at the federal level. Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have all legalized recreational use and sales, with Rhode Island on the verge of doing so as soon as this autumn.

As a consequence, the marijuana art movement has finally received the attention it has deserved for years.

“It’s a night and day difference,” Vela, who sells under the moniker “Vela G,” said. “It used to be very forbidden, and getting a piece required knowing someone who knew someone.”

Tito Bern has been blowing glass since 1999, and his works were being sold to pipe shops about the time Operation Pipe Dreams became national news. In 2006, he co-founded The Bern Gallery in Burlington, Vermont, an award-winning smoke and glass store that held the world’s first pipe-making classic. 

“It was almost as if glass pipes picked me, as if I didn’t have much of a choice,” he added. Marijuana glass, according to Bern, is a “absolutely amazing art” in which artists “use the pipe as a painting” while simultaneously taking into account technical elements like function and usage. 

Bern’s store offers pieces for up to $4,500, with the ones they auction off after each year’s pipe classic fetching up to $10,000. 

Tito Bern, co-founder of The Bern Gallery in Burlington, Vermont, poses with cases of glass art, including his own artisan pipe creations on the top shelf.

Bern believes that musicians now have a larger platform and that the business melting pot is becoming more diverse.

Take, for example, Jess Baer, a ceramist in Central Massachusetts who has her own studio. Baer viewed recreational marijuana legalization in her state, which began in 2016, as a chance to grow her business. She currently offers ceramic, hand-glazed pipes, which she creates with her husband, in addition to tea cups and other household items.

“At ten years, we want our pipe to be on display in (modern home shop) West Elm,” she said.

Some people come from a long tradition of glassmakers. Dave Buechner, of Portland, Maine-based Beak Glass, is a third-generation glass aficionado. In the late 1970s, his parents founded Vitrix Hot Glass in Corning, New York, and his grandpa founded the Corning Museum of Glass. Thames Glass, based in Newport, Rhode Island, is owned by his uncle.

Buechner, who dropped out of college to pursue the craft full-time, said, “I sort of grew up running about a hot shop as a child.”

Chris Vela, a contemporary marijuana glass artist, works on a piece in studio, affixing a glass goblin character to a pipe – a collaboration with artist Mike Shelbo.

What effect has legalization had on the marijuana glass industry?

When a trend or movement becomes “mainstream,” many people get on board in the hopes of making money. Has this been the case for the marijuana business, and in particular, the artists who work in it?

“Budweiser makes billions of gallons of beer, but it doesn’t affect the craft beer industry because consumers know what they’re purchasing,” Vela said.

The same may be said of marijuana pipes. 

Because of a devoted fanbase, artisan glassmaking has survived on its own – yet, like any company, it has difficulties. 

Jeff

Glass pipes are being suffocated by vape pens.

Because of the increasing popularity of marijuana vape pens, more individuals are purchasing oil cartridges rather than marijuana flower, resulting in fewer glass fragments. One of the fastest-growing segments of the cannabis business is the vape pen market.

“Legalization is taking place, and it seems that the majority of individuals are using these gadgets,” Bern added. “It’s a glass pipe killer.”

Glass pipe mass manufacturing in other nations, notably China, began many years ago. Glass from other countries is usually less expensive, and may be purchased at gas stations, convenience stores, and college town head shops. 

“A little glass pipe that I, as an American artist, would sell for $25 was suddenly being sold for around $1.50 by an import business from China or Nepal,” Bern said. 

However, he claims that the dollar difference hasn’t had a significant effect on American artists who have developed a following for their one-of-a-kind collectibles. 

“A lot of them (artists) will have six-, eight-, or two-year wait lists to get on their wholesale order lists,” Tony Oliver, product manager at Sweet Dirt, a Maine cannabis business that buys from local producers, said. “It’s fantastic that they’re so occupied.”

Buechner, who works mostly in wholesale, said the commencement of recreational sales in the autumn of 2020 resulted in a flood of requests for glass.

“For the past year, I’ve been the busy I’ve ever been,” Buechner remarked. “Smoking tourism, I believe, is unquestionably a component of it. People aren’t simply come to climb and view the water. In this town, you may purchase marijuana from a shop. Many visitors like purchasing trinkets and claiming to have purchased them from a Maine artist.”

“Because I produce pipes that require a lot of expertise to make,” Buechner said, the foreign import sector isn’t as “frightening” any more. There’s a lot of pride in supporting local businesses in Maine, he added. 

The pipemaking culture in Burlington, Vermont, is unusual in that the city had “fully embraced cannabis in every manner” before legalization was on the horizon, according to Bern. For years, he’s maintained a loyal and enthusiastic following.

In that regard, legalization had no impact on his company.

“This was occurring on its own long before legalization or before cannabis became popular,” Bern said. “Whether people were putting money into it or not, it was going to be here.”

Pictured is an original marijuana pipe made by glassblower Tito Bern, of The Bern Gallery in Burlington, Vermont, as part of a gargoyle series.

Growing a sense of security in the presence of marijuana and paraphernalia

The effects of legalization differ by location. Legalization may mean a lot to areas where marijuana usage has long been stigmatized and disproportionately criminalized.

Marijuana enforcement has traditionally disproportionately affected communities of color, including arrests for paraphernalia. Vela will generate money for organizations that assist communities affected by judicial cannabis inequalities as part of its “Art of Glass” collaboration with Calyx Containers and well-known glass artist Mike Shelbo.

“I believe fear is a significant role,” Vela added. “As more states legalize marijuana, it just expands the number of people who can feel safe around it (paraphernalia). People are more likely to just appreciate it for what it is: a wonderful work of art.”

Baer took advantage of her newfound familiarity with cannabis by dipping her toes in the water. She has a ceramics workshop in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she mainly creates home furnishings. 

Her modern-looking ceramic pipes were inspired by “conversations and drinks around the coffee table” with her industrial designer husband Zach Hastings.

“It’s one thing to go to a craft show and see ‘it’s wine-o-clock’ wine glasses, and it’s quite another to have a ceramic pipe on your table,” Baer said. Despite some reservations, she took the plunge last year and began producing minimalist pipes with charcoal, baby pink, eggshell, and speckled glazes. 

“It’s become less taboo now that it’s been legalized,” she said. “People aren’t concealing their knickknacks in their nightstands any more. Family members are discovering that they all smoke. We’ve arrived at this point in time.” 

Connecticut is developing a culture.

It’s still “a little bit too early” to say how the new reality will affect business in Connecticut, according to Charlie Ronemus, co-owner of Stoked in Bridgeport. But, even in the months preceding up to the event, as it became clearer and clearer that it would happen, Stoked began to see some changes in customers. 

“They’re bringing their parents and grandparents,” Ronemus said. “People are talking about it more openly, and the issue is less stigmatized.”

The Glass Vegas trade exhibition just awarded Stoked “smoke shop of the year.” Stoked offers studio space for seven resident glassblowers in addition to obtaining mainly American-made pieces.

“We’ve always wanted to combine the experience of learning and witnessing the art being created with the retail sales,” Ronemus said. “It’s really helped us build a culture, a scene in Connecticut that didn’t exist before.”

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