June 29, 2023

Coalitions in Action – A 30-Year Journey in Curbing Drug Paraphernalia Shops


For 30 years, North Coastal Prevention Coalition (NCPC), located in the suburbs of San Diego County, California, has been actively working to prevent and reduce the harm of substance use through community action, education, support, and collaboration. One of their major achievements over the past three decades was the successful implementation of a Headshop Ordinance in 2003, which aimed to curb the proliferation of drug paraphernalia shops in the communities they serve. Erica Leary, NCPC’s Program Manager, and John Byrom, NCPC’s Community Collaboration Specialist, shared their insights into the coalition’s efforts and recent challenges.

The inspiration for this ordinance can be traced back all the way to when John was thirteen years old, and first set foot in a drug paraphernalia shop (also known as a “headshop”). He recounted experiencing firsthand the potential impact it could have on influencing perceptions on the dangers of substance use, “Looking back now, entering that store changed the way that I thought about drugs at the time. I remember thinking, this can’t be that bad for you if there are stores dedicated to selling such a wide variety of these products.”

Flash forward to the early 2000s, when a few headshops began to appear in NCPC’s communities. The coalition, alongside John, was motivated to prevent this shift in perception of harm for other youth, and ultimately set out to stop the growth of such establishments. Working closely with the Assistant City Attorney at the time, they devised a strategy to enforce the existing state laws against drug paraphernalia shops – which many were getting around through the use of a loophole that claimed the paraphernalia being sold was for tobacco use, which was not a violation at the time. Together, the NCPC and Assistant City Attorney created a Headshop Ordinance that specifically prohibited both “tobacco and drug paraphernalia,” which gained significant traction and secured a unanimous 5-0 vote at the City Council.

The implementation of the Headshop Ordinance proved effective, as no new drug paraphernalia shops have opened successfully in their communities since. While there have been occasional violators who have attempted to introduce drug paraphernalia into their establishments, the coalition has managed to thwart their efforts through consistent monitoring and enforcement.

Recently, however, a new challenge emerged when a young planning official suggested granting a variation to a new violator, thereby undermining the established ordinance. NCPC swiftly intervened, highlighting the consequences of allowing such exceptions – especially the fact that this would open the door for more shops to get around the ordinance – and emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong stance against drug paraphernalia shops. Ultimately, the coalition achieved a resounding 4-1 vote in their favor from City Council, which disapproved the variance.

While the ordinance limits the display of drug paraphernalia, it does not completely shut down existing businesses. Erica clarifies that the shops can still sell drug paraphernalia within specified restrictions. The coalition successfully reduced the amount of space allocated for these products, to the maximum of a two by four-foot shelf – a compromise which was key in garnering the support from the City Council. Ongoing compliance checks, coupled with regular visits by the city, will help monitor adherence to these restrictions. Additionally, Erica emphasized the importance of coordination between different policy advocates, particularly in the tobacco prevention and alcohol and drug prevention sectors. This collaboration ensures comprehensive oversight and compliance with local laws and regulations.

John acknowledges the limitations faced when attempting to enforce the ordinance on pre-existing drug paraphernalia shops. While the ordinance effectively prevents new establishments from emerging, grandfathering existing businesses protects them from closure. John recommends to all coalitions looking to replicate this ordinance in their communities: the sooner, the better, to limit these shops as much as possible.

Erica adds, “If you get local policies in place, even if you have to grandfather in existing businesses, you may have opportunities to add additional conditions if they violate local laws.” Establishing local policies, such as conditional use permits and tobacco retail licenses, empowers communities to exercise greater oversight and control over these establishments. By adopting comprehensive local policies, cities can implement signage rules, regular compliance checks, and other measures to mitigate the negative impact of drug paraphernalia shops.

The North Coastal Prevention Coalition’s 30-year journey has been instrumental in curbing the growth of drug paraphernalia shops in Carlsbad, Oceanside, and Vista, California. Through strategic efforts and collaboration with key stakeholders, the coalition successfully implemented the Headshop Ordinance, limiting the proliferation of these establishments. Despite recent challenges, the coalition remains committed to upholding their policies and maintaining ongoing compliance checks. Their achievements serve as a testament to the power of community advocacy and the importance of local control in addressing substance-related issues.

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