Selling legal marijuana and shiny magnetic balls under the same roof is being tried as a solution to Zen Magnets' long-running battle with federal regulators.
The Denver-based firm recently began retail sales of the table-top sculpture sets at two marijuana dispensaries and five smoking accessories stores, where customers by law must be at least 18 or 21 years old.
The aim is to defuse or deflect regulators' claims that the magnetic spheres pose a safety risk to children. A fringe benefit is increased exposure for a product that previously was sold only online.
Owner Shihan Qu sees magnets and cannabis as a natural fit.
"They're both good for stress relief and for people who are really imaginative," he said.
The 5-millimeter balls, made of the rare-earth metal neodymium, are powerfully magnetized and used for molding together in geometric sculptures and artistic designs.
Zen Magnets has been in a fight with the Consumer Product Safety Commission for two years. The CPSC has taken the rare step of filing suit against the firm to stop sales and recall the product. The federal agency cites thousands of cases of magnets being accidentally swallowed, mostly by children.
The magnetic balls also can be ingested when people use them to simulate facial or tongue piercings. If more than one is swallowed, they can bind intestinal tissue together and cause illness.
Qu said his product is not marketed as a children's toy and has never been linked to a documented injury.
He's been fighting the order to cease sales in a case scheduled to be heard by a federal administrative law judge later this year.
Zen Magnets is the last major magnetic-ball company standing. The other large player, Buckyballs, stopped sales in 2012 and recently agreed to establish a trust fund to cover the costs of recalling its product.
Qu is promoting the dispensary and head-shop sales plan with a series of Denver-area billboards. Science Toy Magic in Fort Collins, which Qu said checks the age of all its customers, also sells Zen Magnets.
The initiative so far has failed to sway the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"Our case is still active involving Zen Magnets," CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said. "High-powered magnet sets are a substantial product safety hazard."
Qu said it is too early to tell how many sales will be made at retail locations where IDs are checked before the money changes hands.
Zen Magnets' total annual sales will drop this year to a projected $500,000 compared to $700,000 last year, which Qu attributes to regulatory distractions that gave him less time to market.
"I love magnets," he said. "I want to keep seeing the beauty and joy and inspiration that they bring."
Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/steveraabedp