Passing the torch
Local glassblowers step into the weed paraphernalia industry as marijuana gains acceptance
Behind a nameless storefront near a row of boutiques, a cracked door revealed a flame at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the same flame that had seduced Kaspian Khalafi into a lifestyle and passion that soon became a profitable business.
Khalafi specializes in marijuana pipe and bong repair and crafting—but these days, to follow the industry’s overall trend, he mostly focuses on dab rigs for cannabis oil. Inside his studio on Broadway in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, those fussy details melt before the importance of the torch.
“Some people are just meant to look into that flame and just stare and see that glowingness,” he said as he casually twirled glass before the searing flame. When he sliced new patterns into the piece, they burned red like the edges of lava.
Khalafi is one of roughly two dozen glassblowers in the Sacramento area, according to one of his colleague’s estimates. The pipe industry ballooned after California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Before that, glassblowers were here in smaller numbers, shifting their strategies as weed culture went from psychedelic to scientific alongside a growing amount of medical marijuana patients.
Nowadays, the crafters chase after glory and big bucks online with increasingly artistic and outlandish designs. Their heroes are legends like Banjo, who sells smokeable fantasy worlds made of glass for sometimes more than $100,000 with 161,000 followers on Instagram (@banjoglass).
“Banjo, Elbo—they all have really funny names,” noted Michael Lewis, another local glassblower. (So does plain-name Lewis, at least on Instagram; he’s @lovemachinelou.)
Clone (@cl1_glass) of Sacramento has a funny name for a serious reason. His wife works as a nurse, and, he explained, “the health care industry doesn’t like anything that has to do with marijuana.” So after he leaped from a lucrative job in construction management to full-time glassblowing weed paraphernalia about seven years ago, she asked him to use a pseudonym.
“My wife was just like, ’Hey man, you do what you gotta do, I’m behind you 100 percent, but let’s just try to make it so I don’t get fired,’” he remembered.
Clone, 37, started his art after falling in love with glassblowing during a high school crafting class. At the time, there weren’t many pipe-making mentors in Sacramento. At 19, a friend excitedly told him about a pipe-maker in the window of a tattoo parlor. But when Clone asked for an apprenticeship, the artisan requested a minion to make 10,000 downstems—a glassblower’s busywork.
“I was 100 percent not interested in what this guy had to say,” Clone said. “I looked at it like an art, and like I was going to learn this amazing mystical craft handed down from the masters who had somehow ended up in Sacramento, and that wasn’t the case at all.”
Dispirited, he saw a couple leaving with gun cases, “and they did not look like people who were carrying guns,” he said with a laugh. They looked like burners going to a festival. “That meant that those people were selling glass.”
He struck up a conversation, and the couple offered to make a piece for Clone. They also requested that he stick around to watch. Little did he know that it was a test, one that Clone now uses to assess potential mentees. They wanted to see if he could stare intently into the flame for an hour.
“I was just mesmerized,” he remembered. “That’s where the journey began was with two random hippies in a shop that took me into their office and then trained me how to make pipes.”
From the ’90s to the mid-aughts, Clone kept glassblowing as a side hustle, and he followed along as psychedelic glass pipes replaced metal ones in those early years.
“In that day and age, if you were a glassblower, people wanted to know you,” he said. “They were tired of smoking out of a little metal pipe, and so they wanted this fancy glass stuff that was really cool to look at when you were high.”
Glassblowers expanded on their craft and their share of the market until former President George W. Bush’s Operation Pipe Dreams in 2003, a nationwide sweep of drug paraphernalia stores.
To stay out of trouble, Clone shifted his strategy to learn the Italian tradition of working with soft glass. He waited to apply those fine art skills to refine his weed paraphernalia. Years later, it helped his work to stand out at trade shows. In 2010, he took in $12,000 worth of orders at the American Glass Expo. Then he decided to give the business his all.
As a full-time glassblower, Clone has seen revenue growth every year, he said, and the retail price of his pieces ranges from $150 to $2,500. They glow with brilliant colors like smokable neon signs.
Along with the rising number of glassblowers in Sacramento, Clone is expanding his sights, he said. It’s a decent place to be a glassblower because the city hosts trade shows like City of Trees, the Orbit Show and Pop Up Sesh. But many artists are chasing even bigger dollars online by upping their social media followings.
“That is the game now,” he said.
Beyond the chase for fame and fortune, the glassblowers keep coming back for their love of the flame, glass and THC, especially as a medicine for their customers. They intimately understand the importance of weed because of how it’s changed their own lives.
As a teen, Khalafi struggled with Asperger’s, and therapists prescribed him legal drugs that failed to work. When he smoked “the devil’s lettuce” on 4/20 at the age of 18, he discovered the sense of euphoria he had been seeking.
“Marijuana has helped me be who I am today,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t know if I’d actually be able to be sane or rational enough to hold down a job.”
Now, simply by fixing glass, Khalafi can give relief to his customers.
“I had a one-legged guy in here in tears [of gratitude] two days ago to get his glass piece back into working condition,” Khalafi said. “That is really what makes this worth doing on a day-to-day basis.”