A man standing in a smokeshop, surrounded by shelves with drug paraphernalia
Naz Barak, owner of Houdini's Smoke Shop for 11 years, said he thinks San Jose should focus on street drugs rather than enforcing a permit on smokeshops for illicit substances. Photo by Annalise Freimarck

San Jose smoke shops will soon be monitored more closely by the city for unregulated drugs due to a new permitting system.

The San Jose City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to require an additional permit for smoke shops in the city, in an attempt to reduce the amount of unregulated drugs — including synthetic cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms — residents and children can access. San Jose officials said the permits are needed to hold shop owners accountable and protect vulnerable populations.

The city is ironing out the details, including permit cost and whether to use a conditional use permit, and plans to bring its findings to the Public Safety and Strategic Finance Committee by the end of the year or after the new year. The city is also considering a moratorium to prevent new smoke shops from opening until the permit process is finalized. San Jose’s code enforcement department implements permits.

Councilmember Peter Ortiz, who represents East San Jose, spearheaded the initiative that led to the decision. He said he’s seen a rise in illicit drugs offered at smoke shops across the city. He estimated about nine out of 10 stores have these items, and said it’s dangerous for disenfranchised communities where drugs could end up in children’s hands.

“Working families need to know that there’s going to be accountability for these shops and what they sell and that they face consequences if they don’t follow the rules that are set up to keep everyone safe,” he told San José Spotlight.

Synthetic drugs, including synthetic cannabinoids, remain unregulated, meaning their ingredients and concentration may vary, which Poison Control considers dangerous.

Ricky Campo, who’s worked at BullDog Smoke Shop and Gifts Store since August, said a permit is good if it prevents children from accessing controlled substances. He said if it’s an annual permit, he’d like it to be less than $1,200 to keep costs affordable.

“It would probably be doable at a reasonable price, but if it’s not realistic, is it even worth being in business?” he told San José Spotlight.

Many smoke shops already have permits issued through the city, which are required because they sell tobacco products. San Jose has 583 stores that sell tobacco products according to the code enforcement department, which covers stores other than smoke shops, including gas stations.

The decision follows the city’s ban of flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes in 2022, which officials said would prevent children from becoming addicted. San Jose also loosened cannabis restrictions last year, reducing fines on dispensaries that violate city policy.

Naz Barak, owner of Houdini’s Smoke Shop for 11 years, said he understands the regulations because he was faced with a fine for an employee not checking a customer’s ID. But he said people will still find a way to access drugs on the streets, which is the larger problem.

“They have to clean the streets with the illegal stuff, not the smoke shops,” he told San José Spotlight. “If they crack down on all that stuff, then all that stuff will be selling on the street. People will want it more and there will be a dealer.”

Ortiz said the smoke shops have to do better.

“It doesn’t help that we have storefronts here in our city participating in that illicit culture,” he said. “We shouldn’t be pointing fingers at others who are acting on this crime. We should all be holding ourselves to that higher standard.”

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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