Though its history goes back centuries, the trusty bong is at a crossroads, as marijuana legalization changes how pot enthusiasts consume their cannabis.
Several parts of the world lay claim to the invention of the hookah, bong, water pipe, bubbler or whatever you prefer to call it. There are the famous hookahs that reportedly originated in ancient Persia and India, as well as schools of thought that suggest the bong originated in Africa or that the term comes from “baawng,” the Thai word for marijuana pipe.
Whatever their provenance, water pipes have been part of America’s cannabis cultural landscape for decades now. But long-time observers see a trend away from cannabis smoke and towards vaporizing marijuana — which heats cannabis flower, oil or concentrate to just below its combustion point and turns it into a smokeless vapor, avoiding the irritating effects smoke can have on a consumer’s throat and lungs.
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“I don’t think joints and water pipes will ever disappear, but smoking isn’t the healthiest way,” says Chris Bennett, a Vancouver-based cannabis historian during a phone interview with The Cannabist.
Bennett believes that, given the growing legalization movement and greater social acceptance of marijuana, people are looking for alternative ways to consume their weed, while holding onto the familiarity, community and tradition of a pipe.
“You can go to Jamaica and you’ll see Rastas vaporizing marijuana or using steam pipes,” he adds, “because of the medicinal view on cannabis, and this new kind of new health approach towards it.”
Yet there is a growing demand for high-end glass water pipes, as more Americans accept cannabis as part of the mainstream culture.
Dustin Revere, founder of Revere Glass in Berkeley, California, became a glass artist after exposure to the cannabis culture as a teenager. He later went to Italy to study glass blowing with master craftsmen. His customized glass pipes fetch anywhere from $300 to over $10,000. And as he told The Cannabist during a phone interview, there has been a cross-over trend in recent years when it comes to his customers: people who are both cannabis enthusiasts and art collectors.
Looking back ten years, to when he began working in glass, Revere said, “the technical challenge was huge, alongside the social challenge of being accepted as an Americana art form like graffiti or jazz or skateboarding. But now it’s seen as a ‘thing’.”
But now Revere finds himself and his artwork in demand. And the appeal of glass pipes, for use both as bongs and vaporizers, is growing dramatically.
“Ten to 15 years ago, people would rarely buy a bong online,” says Greg Gaston, marketing director for VaporNation, an L.A.-based distributor and online retail store for big-name vaporizers and glass pipes that opened for business in 2008. He points back to the infamous prosecution and jailing in 2003 of counter-culture comedian Tommy Chong – part of Cheech and Chong – for selling glass pipes online.
But now, Gaston reported during a phone conversation with The Cannabist, his company is selling pipes and vaporizers to more than 5,000 shops all over the U.S. as well as internationally, and is currently employing about 60 people.
“I don’t think (demand) has died down a bit,” he says. “In fact it is still growing. We have a lot of partners who only sell glass pipes and they’re seeing extraordinary growth.”
And while the company still focuses on herbal and concentrate vaporizers, they’ve spent the past several months diversifying their stock to include more water pipes.
In fact, Gaston says, the industry is starting to see a lot more vaporizers that function hand-in-hand with water pipes.
“We have a few dozen bongs that work alongside vaporizers, so you put the vaporizing device in the down-stem of your bong and it vaporizes your herb,” he explains. “So you get nice bong rips, but they’re vaporized bong rips.”
As alternatives to cannabis flower — such as concentrates, dabs and shatter — become more widely available to consumers, many experts expect vaporizers to continue to develop a large following.
But Gaston believes there will always be a place in the marijuana market for water pipes and/or their various hybrids with vaporizers.
“Bongs have been around for so long that people are very comfortable with them; they know what they are, and they’re familiar,” he says.