Taking a Hit

A maker of "water filtration systems" for smokers gets more publicity than he bargained for.

Telluride's George Harrison wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He does not sell, nor has he ever sold, a bong. A bong, mind you, is a piece of drug paraphernalia used to smoke marijuana, and it is illegal to sell one in the state of Colorado. If someone were to come into his store and even ask for such an illicit device, Harrison says, he would immediately show him the door. Instead, Harrison describes himself as a licensed tobacco seller who offers a unique line of "water filtration systems" used to smoke various legal tobacco products.

"There are people who smoke tobacco through water pipes," he insists.
But the writers at Rolling Stone magazine recently told it like it is: They named Harrison's product the "Hot Bong" in their August 21 Hot Issue, an annual compendium of what they deem the trendiest people, places and things. The honor infuriates Harrison, who says he told the magazine's writers that he would speak to them only if they agreed to use "proper terminology" and refrain from describing his product as a "bong."

"They took complete advantage of me," Harrison says. "We were going to be Hot Accessory of the Year. They expressed a verbal promise not to use that word."

Although most small-business owners would kill for the international publicity the writeup garnered, the 26-year-old Harrison says the magazine has put his tiny company in legal jeopardy.

"When I first read it, I wasn't sure how to react," he says. "I wasn't about to threaten Rolling Stone. But after I faxed them a letter, they called and were apologetic."

Though the magazine's editors failed to provide Harrison with a satisfactory explanation of why they reneged on the agreement, he says, they agreed to run a truncated version of a letter he faxed them. But he says their version of the letter, which ran in the next issue, deleted Harrison's explanation of the potential legal liability of describing his product as a bong.

Rolling Stone senior editor Will Dana says Harrison's letter was edited for space, not content. Dana says that none of the writers informed him of any agreement with Harrison but that he apologized to Harrison for any misunderstanding. However, Dana adds, "It was pretty obvious to me what the thing was used for."

Denver head shops that sell water pipes handle the semantics of their product very gingerly. Freaky's, a head shop located on South Broadway, was busted by the U.S. Customs Service three years ago for selling bongs, but other shops still carry them.

Harrison got his commercial brainstorm four years ago while he was a student at the University of Colorado. A natural-born tinkerer, he scoured the aisles of Boulder's venerable McGuckin Hardware store looking for the perfect materials to make a better water pipe before settling on acrylic tubing. He left college after only one semester when a car accident sent him back home to Telluride with serious injuries, but a year later, while on a road trip to California, Harrison had an epiphany: With a little modification, the plastic water bottles bike riders use could become the perfect--not to mention inconspicuous--water pipe.

He spoke with a patent attorney and decided to go forward with his plan about three and a half years ago, naming his new venture Hardware as a tribute to the hours spent in McGuckin's.

Harrison's devices look cleverly like name-brand household products. Some of Harrison's designs could easily be mistaken for bottles of Formula 409, Bufferin or Texaco motor oil. That's because he brazenly swipes their bottle and label designs; Formula 409, for instance, becomes the deceptively similar "Filter 420." So far, Harrison hasn't heard from any trademark attorneys, though he and his three partners have anticipated some flak.

After marketing his product via word of mouth and handing out promotional stickers at a snowboard trade show in Las Vegas, last year Harrison set up a Web site, www.smokinhardware.com, to display and sell his wares. Three weeks ago Harrison opened a Hardware Factory Outlet. He boasts that it's "the first head shop in Telluride history." So far, he says, he's sold nearly 6,000 of his contraptions to a wide variety of customers--from youthful snowboarders to sixty-year-olds.

Despite the scare he got from the Rolling Stone writeup, Harrison says he's pushing ahead with plans to expand his market base.

One of those plans includes offering a "healthier alternative" to people who smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes in states like California, where that's legal. Harrison claims that the design of his water pipe provides a better way to smoke, since the water filters carcinogens from smoke and cools it before it enters the lungs.

Harrison recognizes that his plan is a double-edged sword: If he is not allowed to admit that his products are used to smoke dope, how can he market them to hospitals to do that very thing?

"It's a catch-22," he admits, adding, "The steps and hoops I have to go through suck. It sucks that I have to be so careful how I say things."

Harrison says Colorado law is ambiguous on the subject of how a seller is supposed to go about determining just what his customers intend to stuff in their pipes. "Current legislation can determine by wording alone whether something is drug paraphernalia," he says. "I'm not a legal expert, but I have read the Colorado Revised Statutes, and association and intent are the biggest factors in determining if something is drug paraphernalia. And that gets as touchy as how it is discussed."

In the meantime, he plans to hit up a guaranteed market: He'll follow Grateful Dead successors Phish and their legions of neo-hippie fans for three stops on their mid-November tour. That's a group of people, he says, "who are very receptive to my product.

 
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