The Head Shop Movement: Central Mass’ Emerging Market

Pedestrians strolling on one of Worcester’s busiest downtown streets on a recent morning don’t give a second glance to the neon bong in the window of Lili’s Smoke Shop, a new addition to the city’s retail landscape.

Neither does the police officer working a construction detail a few feet from Lili’s front door, across Front Street from City Hall.

For sale inside the 2,000-square-foot emporium are hundreds of elaborate and colorfully tinted hand-blown glass pipes, gas masks tethered to bongs, and $600 machines that convert material into vapor instead of smoke, among many other items.

The vast majority of the merchandise (other than the knives, Samurai swords, Rastafarian-inspired jewelry and Zippo lighters) is what would be considered drug paraphernalia, though Lili’s also carries a full line of products used in hookah smoking, a legal Middle-Eastern-inspired water pipe system.

But to stay on the good side of the authorities, Lili’s and other smoke shops — long known in popular culture as head shops — take pains to point out that they do not encourage any illegal activities. At most of these shops, simply uttering the word “marijuana” is reason to be asked to leave.

“This is a smoking shop,” says co-owner Yu Min, and signs plastered everywhere reinforce the message that the products are to be used for legal purposes only. “Everything is for tobacco use only.”

Lili’s, which opened in August, is among a handful of similar businesses that have sprung up in Worcester and Central Massachusetts in recent months.

While a few small head shops have plied an unobtrusive trade over the years, it has long been relatively difficult to find smoking paraphernalia without going to Rhode Island or New York.

The Green Zone Smoke & Gifts Shop opened in April in Worcester’s Canal District neighborhood. Double G Enterprises, near the Leicester line, also opened in the spring. The Kiln, on the edge of Fitchburg State University, started up in March.

Some speculate that the trend was inspired by the legalization of medical marijuana last year, coupled with increasing societal acceptance of marijuana since possession and use of small quantities of the drug were decriminalized five years ago — all pointing to a cultural “tipping point.”

“This is what we call progress. It is a big change,” said William Downing, a spokesman for MassCann, the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “This is the beginning of the process of normalization.”

Outside the Green Zone store, Eric A. Vallee, 34, of Sutton, emerged with his purchase, maroon plastic “mantra beads,” which he wore around his right wrist.

Mr. Vallee is both a licensed medical marijuana “caregiver” and consultant — doing business as Mass Cannabis Consulting Agency — and a licensed patient. His affliction: arthritis in an ankle, which flares up when he goes snowboarding, he said.