As the nation cowered under an orange terrorism alert, crack troopers of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) swooped down on bongmakers, pipe manufacturers, head shops and Internet sites across the country Monday, arresting 55 people and confiscating "tons and tons" of drug paraphernalia across the country.
"Operation Pipe Dreams" and "Operation Headhunter," as Attorney General John Ashcroft named the raids, used gung-ho paraphernalia specialists at US Attorneys' offices in Des Moines and Pittsburgh to cast a net snaring paraphernalia makers from Oregon and California to Texas, Michigan, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. The victims ranged from local headshops in the Pittsburgh area to nationally known manufacturers such as Tommy Chong Glass.
In a new wrinkle, the Justice Department also announced it was obtaining court orders to seize 11 web sites that sold paraphernalia, and would direct visitors to a DEA website that cites the law against the sale of such items. Attorney General Ashcroft claimed that the sale of paraphernalia had "exploded" on the Internet. "Quite simply," said Ashcroft, "the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge."
Federal law criminalizes the sale of products designed to be used for drug consumption, and despite the howls of those arrested and their sympathizers, that law is crystal clear. In a 2001 article on federal paraphernalia busts in Iowa (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/174.html#headsup), attorney Robert Vaughan, perhaps the leading paraphernalia defense attorney in the country, told DRCNet, "It's simple. If you have a bong, you're violating federal law. You can get a license to own a tommy gun, but you can't get one to own a bong. Stores that have bongs are screwed," the Nashville-based lawyer said. "They can't win. The Supreme Court upheld its so-called objective standard in US vs. Posters and Things in 1994, and now whole categories of items are per se illegal."
In an article on the arrest of Florida-based Chills, Inc. owner Chris Hill in January 2002 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/221.html#chillsinc), another bust linked to federal prosecutors in Des Moines, Vaughan went even further. "I may not like the law as it is," said Vaughan, "but I can't lie to these people. You don't have a chance of winning unless you have a bad search and seizure. And if you challenge that and are unsuccessful, you'll really be pissing into a fire then. That means cutting a deal. And with these guys, you have to give up your mother, where she was born, and her maiden name," he said. "I am not taking any more of these cases," he told DRCNet. "You can't win."
"People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different than drug dealers," gloated acting DEA administrator John B. Brown III. "They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide."
"Today's actions send a clear and unambiguous message to those who would poison our children," chimed in drug czar John Walters. "We will bring you to justice, and we will act decisively to protect our young children from the harm of illegal drugs."
Advocates for drug reform weren't buying it. "At a time when the rest of the country is worried about terrorism, this attorney general is going after people who sell pipes," NORML (http://www.norml.org) founder Keith Stroup told the Associated Press. "Surely he has something better to do with his time."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), suggested that the busts were aimed at scoring political points. Nadelmann told the AP, "It would be more logical -- although I'm not suggesting this -- to prosecute people who sell beer mugs, because of the poison consumed in them."
The paraphernalia industry has, as DRCNet has reported in the stories linked above, tried to pretend that its products really are not designed to be used with illegal drugs. Given this week's mass raids and arrests, that tactic appears to have exhausted itself. Perhaps now the industry will try another tack. Richard Cowan of Marijuana News (http://www.marijuananews.com) has suggested one: Operation Peacepipe.
The headshop and paraphernalia industry should, wrote Cowan, "use legal herbs as a political statement and sell them in conjunction with bongs, rolling papers and other 'paraphernalia.' The herbs should be promoted at 'point of sale' with little placards, and displayed throughout the store side-by-side with the bongs and pipes and papers. People should be explicitly encouraged to buy the herbs to be used in such a way as to undermine the enforcement of the marijuana laws," Cowan suggested. "No subterfuge, no pretense. This is an explicitly political action. Indeed, smoking the herbs should be a form of political protest. Thus an herbal 'smoke-in' could be a perfectly legal way to protest the absurdity of marijuana prohibition."
Alright, paraphernalia industry. Anyone got a better idea?