Marijuana in Minnesota

High art in high times: Bongs in a post-legalization Minnesota

A man works on a glass water pipe
Eric Ross, who has been blowing glass for 23 years, finishes a bong in his home workshop in Shakopee on April 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated April 22, 2:46 p.m. | Posted April 20, 8 a.m.

In his home glass studio in Shakopee, Eric Ross fuses bubbles of molten glass over a Bunsen burner on an industrial lathe that spins and spins.

He blows into a long tube, shaping the bubbles into what will soon be a $1300 bong. With the tube in his teeth, Ross says a stigma has lifted since the legalization of recreational cannabis in Minnesota last August.

“It’s so nice that now I can call it a bong,” Ross says. “It used to always have to be ‘water pipes’ or whatever, but with the new laws it’s so nice to just say ‘bong.’” 

Before August, bongs that were used to smoke cannabis had long existed in a legal gray area in the state as drug paraphernalia. 

A man sits at a workbench, hold a large glass water pipe
Eric Ross works on a bong in his home workshop in Shakopee.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“For 22 years in a state where what I was doing was not too legal — I mean there was a loophole to make it okay — but it really is nice now that legalization happened for like family, neighbors,” Ross says. ”Honestly, it’s just took all that unnecessary worry out of it.”

Minneapolis glass artist Ashley Ann Austin agrees.

“Over the past few years, I’m not as afraid to tell my family what I do for a living,” Austin says. “It’s less stigmatized, and even people who are pretty square are like ‘That’s art.’ Especially after I show them what I make.”

A bong shaped like a chameleon-1
A chameleon-shaped bong made by Minneapolis artist Ashley Ann Austin in collaboration with Milwaukee artist Devin Somerville, also known as Cap'N Crunk.
Courtesy of Diego Rodriguez

For glass artists, pipe-making is an art form and highly skilled craft, and many say Minnesota is becoming a hub for it.

“Local hand-blown glass pipes is something that in Minnesota, and specifically the Twin Cities, but all over the state, has been exploding over the last few years,” says Josh Wilken-Simon.

Wilken-Simon founded Legacy Glassworks, a glass gallery-studio-head shop he started in Duluth in 2010. He has since opened a location in Minneapolis and, soon, one in Woodbury. 

Minneapolis-St Paul is “definitely within the top five cities across the world for the glass pipe scene,” Wilken-Simon says.

A man poses for a photo
Josh Wilken-Simon is the founder and owner of Legacy Glassworks.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Ross says the industry has taken a bit of a hit with the economic downturn after the pandemic, but it’s still going strong.

“Oh my god in the last 10 years, 15 years, it’s grown so much and it’s so much fun,” he says.

Ross has been blowing glass for 23 years. He got into it while a student at Hamline University and a friend was working at Clown Glass, a glass art shop, in Minneapolis.

But also, Ross loves cannabis.

“I love cannabis and cannabis really is what got me into glass all those years ago,” he says.

Colorful glass rods sit on shelves
Glass artist Eric Ross shows off his library of colored glass.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Ross started making his own work in a garage and it took off, opening a retail shop with his friends. This was also the era of Operation Pipe Dreams, when federal agents raided glass shops and charged dozens of people with trafficking drug paraphernalia — the most famous being Tommy Chong.

“It was really scary. It was, you know, a terrible time,” Ross says.

While there were no charges in Minnesota, Wilken-Simon said it had a chilling effect on the burgeoning local industry at the time.

“That really put the trajectory of local glass pipes to a screeching halt,” Wilken-Simon says. ”Artists that were making the pipes, and decided to take the risk and continue making them, they all started going by aliases, which is why you have a lot of glassblowers that don’t use their real names — even to this day.”

Ross kept at it and, in 2010, one of his bongs was featured on the cover of High Times, the long running cannabis magazine.

“It was 14 years ago, but it’s still one of the best days of my career,” Ross says.

A couple of months later he started his company 4.0 Glass, which he now runs from his garage studio at his home in Shakopee, which he shares with his wife and son.

A man stands below a large print of a magazine cover
Eric Ross poses beneath a blown-up print of a High Times magazine cover featuring one of his glass bongs.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The two-story garage is filled with high-tech and specialized equipment, including a scientific glass lathe, a kiln, laser cutters and a lampworking bench area where Ross works with a torch on the finer details of a bong, like attaching the mouthpiece.

His bongs run hundreds to thousands of dollars, elegant and intricate clear pieces with accents in sparkling green and blue. Ross calls himself a craftsman.

“My thing is function. I want someone to be able to buy a piece and just have it for the rest of their life,” Ross says.

Ross, Austin and Wilken-Simon say there’s a buzz in the industry around legalization and the opening of dispensaries in 2025, most of which are likely to also sell at least some pipes and bongs.

A close-up of a glass pipe, heating on a lathe
Eric Ross uses a graphite-covered sculpting tool to craft a glass bong.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I feel like the pump has been primed for Minnesota, and we’re just ready,” Austin says. 

While there is excitement for the local glass industry, they say there is anxiety, too: that low-quality glass from overseas will flood the local market.

“We have our work cut out for us to be able to educate the general public,” Wilken-Simon says. “It’s a very safe thing to say that 99 percent of the people in Minnesota and across the country that consume cannabis haven’t really put any thought into where the pipes and the bongs that they use daily come from. Do they just come out of a machine? Are they made locally? Are they made overseas?”

He says that the majority of glass from overseas is made in unethical, often sweatshop conditions. Ross says it’s all about quality control. Imported glass, he says, can feature paint and glass dust that is dangerous to inhale.

The base of a glass pipe glows red-hot
When the base of Eric Ross' bong cools it will be a sparkly green and blue.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“All this cheap glass you’re seeing, although there is some made in America, it’s mostly overseas glass and I don’t think it's made by people that really smoke,” he says. “The pieces I make — they’re truly made by a smoker.”

Wilken-Simon advises potential bong buyers to identify quality pieces by looking for a greater heft and glass thickness.

Austin, who goes by Trip A in the glass world, advises people to look for pieces at shops where the artist's names are listed.

“The person working at the store should know who made it,” Austin says. Or purchase directly from the artist, she says.

“There’s a lot of people making a lot of really cool pipes in various price ranges right in your own community,” Wilken-Simon adds. “We should support those folks.”

Glass water pipes sit in an art studio
Finished bongs sit in Eric Ross’s studio.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Back in his studio, Ross is surrounded by the bongs he’s made. One art bong collaboration he did takes the shape of a tornado with little figures caught in the swirl — an homage to the Wizard of Oz.

Ross pulls some glass tubes from a box sent to him that feature rainbow stars, mystery boxes and a frog-suited Mario from the Mario Bros. video games — his next project, a collaboration he’s doing with the artist that goes by Micro’s Workshop out of Milwaukee. 

“It’s an interesting life,” Ross says. “You get to just make bongs all day and try to make people's life better through enjoying cannabis more.”

April 20, the cannabis holiday known as 420, is a great time to meet local glass artists. Austin will be hosting glass demos 1 to 5 p.m. at the back of the artist studios at the Midway Triangle Building at 2500 Ave. W. in St. Paul (enter through the back garage on Franklin Avenue, Austin says.) Legacy Glassworks is hosting a glassblowing pop-up event 2 to 7 p.m. at Surly Brewing in Minneapolis.

A person holds a glass tube featuring super mario
Eric Ross inspects glass art by Milwaukee-based artist Micro’s Workshop, which features art from Mario Bros.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Correction (April 22, 2024): An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Micro's Workshop. It also said Eric Ross and another artist created a bong featured on the cover of High Times magazine. To clarify, Ross was the sole artist.

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