Smoke Shops Deemed Essential Businesses in Isla Vista


Andrew Hernandez
Investigative Beat Reporter

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, smoke shops in Isla Vista were some of the few businesses still operating along Embarcadero del Norte and Pardall Road. However, the operational three whittled down to just one by this weekend, with Wild Side Smoke Shop now serving customers “curbside only.” As such, their business has seen a recent uptick; however, students can’t help but feel that what should be an active heart of I.V. has now turned desolate. 

Outside of the obvious grocery stores and restaurants, it is clear the pressures of a dwindling clientele base are exerting their toll. Smoke shops in Santa Barbara are still able to operate so long as they are practicing the proper social safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC). 

Both Precious Slut and the Vape Shop are now closed, leaving convenience stores as the only non-smoke shop option in I.V. Changes to the county’s tobacco laws that became official in mid-March prevented smoke shops and convenience stores from selling non-traditionally flavored vape products, like the Puff Bar. Alongside notices of the new curbside policy for Wild Side customers are updates on their Puff Bar stock and what flavor capsules, meant to modify the still available Puff Bars, are in stock.  

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order weeks ago along with guidelines on what businesses qualify as essential or non-essential. The sections which allow smoke shops to stay open alongside dispensaries starts with the continued operation of healthcare/public health sectors, which includes licensed medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries. Under the “Other Community-based Operations” heading and “Essential Workforce” section further down, businesses like commercial retail stores that, “supply essential sectors, including convenience stores, etc.” are allowed to operate. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, at least two smoke shops were charged by the city of L.A. at the start of the month. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office threatened to shut off the store’s utilities after they refused to close their doors during the public health emergency. 

For those who may see smoke shops as non-essential, they would be right if residing in L.A.; the city elected to impose tougher sanctions on top of the statewide order. The “Safer at Home” order issued by Mayor Garcetti last month has been most recently extended until May 15.

Officials within Santa Barbara have chosen not to enact similar measures and have gone along with Governor Newsom’s guidelines. The California order supersedes city orders; however, cities are welcome to impose harsher restrictions as well, should they deem it necessary.

Smoke shops, which existed for decades before states began legalizing cannabis in 2010, were able stake a large claim on the cannabis accessory market. Although more dispensaries opened alongside new state legislation, most have been unwilling to challenge smoke shops as both establishments prefer to keep their product offerings with clear divisions.

Dispensaries have a multitude of THC products and a handful of essential accessories which are handy to throw into an order. While smoke shops offer their own large variety of products to accompany those dispensary purchases. 

To put it plainly, there is a large enough clientele, with varying medicinal needs, in legalized states who regularly spend hundreds of dollars in cannabis and smoke shops monthly year in and year out. This established cycle makes it simultaneously difficult to disrupt by keeping dispensaries open, while closing smoke shops.

The debate between balancing human tragedy with financial losses rages on nationally, but one thing is for certain. Easter Sunday would not have been the triumphant resurgence of grandeur as considered by the President’s office weeks ago. Like the scenes of our own empty streets, and the full hospitals across the country, our path to recovery appears grim for the time being.