In the popular Chelsea Market food and shopping hall, Higher Standards blends in. In fact, if you pass by you may not realize what's inside: an assortment of products mostly designed to help you get high.
"This is us lifting the veil," Eric Hammond said.
Hammond, the general manager, opened the store late last year, hoping to revolutionize the traditional head shop. Its product line goes well beyond glass pipes. There are kitchen appliances to make your own marijuana-infused oil or butter, torches, assorted vaporizers, and the newest offering: a high-tech automatic joint-roller.
Hammond said he's catering to a sophisticated clientele that expects an elevated shopping experience. And the merchandise isn't cheap, especially in the showcase upfront, which he said probably has more than $100,000-worth of art. That case contains glass bongs that double as collectible art. The darling of the bunch is the Banana Gun, which is priced at $33,000.
It's a world away from the common smoke shop, and part of the industry's increasingly deliberate effort to legitimize marijuana and leave its negative connotations behind. It's now called the cannabis industry. Marijuana buds are referred to as flower, recreational use is now adult use, and bongs are accessories, not paraphernalia.
"The idea was to destigmatize the shopping experience; to make it welcoming, to let people come in and, you know, feel comfortable exploring, asking questions," Hammond said.
Marketing isn't the only reason Hammond avoids words like pot, weed, or even marijuana. Higher Standards sells no plant material and is fully legal and permitted, but using many of its products as intended is illegal. So there are few overt references to the drug; how customers get it is their own business.
It's New York's marijuana paradox. It's increasingly out in the open, but the NYPD made almost 18,000 arrests last year for low-level possession; 86 percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic. Consider, in the first three months of this year, about 2,000 blacks and 1,600 Hispanics were arrested, compared to 287 whites.
That reality persists despite Mayor Bill de Blasio's effort at decriminalization, and talk of reform at the highest levels of power.
"If smoking marijuana doesn't hurt anybody else, why shouldn't we allow people to do it and not make it criminal?" New York Sen. Charles Schumer said in a recent interview with HBO's "Vice News Tonight."
The customers at Higher Standards don't seem too concerned about the drug's illicit nature, which is exactly the point:
Cuza: It's not fringe anymore.
Hammond: No. it's not at all. It's mainstream, so to speak, you know. It's ok. And that's what this is — this is making it ok."