Head Shops: What They Are, How They’re Not Dispensaries

By WeedWeek Sep 9, 2020

Don’t visit a head shop expecting to pick up a couple grams of pot or some pre-rolls, because head shops do not sell any marijuana or other illegal drugs. If, however, you’re in the market for an octopus bong or a Gandalf pipe, a head shop is where you want to be. Steeped in a rich history of countercultural movements, head shops help preserve and promote the culture of cannabis. For pot-lovers, there’s something for everyone at your local headshop. 

What Are Head Shops?   

A head shop is a retail store that sells merchandise related to cannabis culture. Not to be confused with smoke shops, which are geared towards tobacco products and paraphernalia, head shops are dedicated to all things ganga – without a single gram of THC being present in the actual store. Certain head shops also sell tobacco products such as cigarettes.

Head shops have traditionally been retail storefronts, however increasingly they can be found online as well. Brick and mortar head shops can feature an online catalogue for their merchandise as a way of increasing sales and marketing, while other head shops are exclusively online. 

Why Do They Call Them Head Shops?   

As with much of the origins of cannabis culture, due to its illicit nature and the necessity of keeping a low profile, the origins of the term “head shop” remain somewhat murky. Thanks to its inception during the flower power movement, some attribute the name to the Grateful Dead, who’s legions of devoted fans are called dead heads. Some say that the word “head” could be an acronym for “He Eats Acid Daily” (a term with a little of that 60’s sexist flair). The origins could date back even earlier, to the first quarter of the 20th century. Around the year 1911 saw slang first emerge which attributed the word “head” onto anyone perceived as having a drug addiction; the terms “pothead” and “acid head” were born. Regardless, head shops remain a feature of bustling commercial streets to this day. 

History of Head Shops

Head shops became popular during the hippie movement of the 1960s, with the first shop said to have been founded in San Francisco’s iconic Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Soon after, these stores began appearing in cities like New York and Los Angeles, before spreading more widely. The head shops of the flower-power movement era were tied with underground, counterculture movements, and were places where anti-war newspapers and sentiments could safely be circulated. 

These days, head shops tend to be a distant reflection of their more political pasts. As weed has become increasingly socially acceptable across the country, the need for underground spaces has diminished. Modern-day head shops still carry marijuana paraphernalia, but can also feature other oddities unrelated to cannabis, and often serve a dual function as curiosity shops.

What Do Smoke Shops Carry?   

Not to be confused with a dispensary, where you can purchase marijuana and marijuana-infused products (depending on state laws), a head shop is a store that sells merchandise related to the consumption and culture of marijuana. They tend to array items for smoking weed or hash, such as bongs, pipes, hookas, vaporizers, and rolling papers. Other paraphernalia commonly sighted at head shops include roach clips, grinders, weighing scales, and lighters. You can also find a selection of oddities like walking sticks, Himalayan stockings, and items like t-shirts and wallets emblazoned with marijuana leaves. 

Are Head Shops Profitable?   

As with any business, the profitability of head shops isn’t a sure thing. How profitable an individual shop is depends on a range of factors, including the location, competition, and the effectiveness of marketing efforts. As marijuana becomes increasingly legalized and socially accepted, the market for legal weed has been expanding – and some of this could spill over into head shops. One case study from 2014 saw revenues in 2012 of over one million dollars, while in 2011 it brought in around $700,000. 

How Do I Start A Head Shop?   

The first step towards starting a head shop is to look into the laws relating to cannabis in your state – more on this below. It’s advisable to hire an attorney to ensure you’re in full compliance.

Beyond that, there are a few steps you should follow, including: 

  1. Set a budget
  2. Write a business plan
  3. Fundraise, if necessary
  4. Obtain the licenses necessary (will vary state, city, etc.)
  5. Decide on a business name and register it
  6. Select a location
  7. Build a knowledgeable and passionate team
  8. Market your head shop
  9. Source inventory using management software
  10. Set up a POS system

Setting up a business is no small feat, so make sure you are dedicated and passionate enough to see the effort through. 

How Many Head Shops Are In The United States?   

Stores are always opening and closing, making an exact number of head shops difficult to produce. However, there are likely around 3,000 of them in states across the country, including in every state. For a directory of headshops, click here


Technically, as long as head shops don’t sell actual weed or any products containing THC, it is legal for them to operate in the United states – although there are certain restrictions that vary based on state. Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 drug and remains illegal at the federal level, head shop owners must be fully cognizant of the rules before thinking about opening a location of their own.

For example, in some states, it is illegal to sell bongs under that name. Some stores instead use the term “water pipe.”  Many head shops insist that their products – pipes, hookas, and so forth – are meant for legal tobacco products (just ignore that giant pot-leaf poster behind you, officer!). In some stores, staff are instructed never to even utter the “M” word, and insist anyone who does – including customers – leave the premises immediately. 

However, with the steadily improving legal situation for weed across the country, head shop owners and staff are able to breathe a bit easier. Many states, including California, Colorado and Washington, have entirely legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. Decriminalization efforts are gaining momentum at the federal level as well. While there’s still a ways to go before weed is entirely legal, there might be a (cherry) light at the end of the tunnel.  


Head shops have been a permanent fixture of bustling city neighborhoods for decades, and with the advent of legalized marijuana and increasing prevalence of cannabis culture in the United States, they will likely be around for the foreseeable future. Beginning an adventure into owning one could provide a bright future, especially for entrepreneurs who are passionate about cannabis.