Naked City

Ashcroft's Pipe Nightmares

Last week, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration indicted 27 people nationwide on charges of selling various types of drug paraphernalia -- bongs, roach clips, and more exotic items, such as pipes shaped like highlight markers and lipstick tubes. The DEA's sweeps, code-named Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter, started over a year ago in Des Moines and Pittsburgh, and eventually blossomed into a full-scale crackdown on Internet distributors as well as individual head shops. Those charged face up to three years in federal prison, as well as massive fines and seizure of their drug-related property.

Showing the typical sense of proportion of John Ashcroft's Dept. of Justice, DEA Acting Administrator John Brown states that paraphernalia peddlers are really no different from drug dealers. Furthermore, he said, "They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide." (Brown forgot to note that you can still purchase silencers online.)

The arrests, and Brown's comments, prompted an immediate outcry from drug reform advocates. "These businesses pay taxes and do not in any way contribute to the crime problem in America," said NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup. "In addition, the day-to-day operations of these businesses are arguably a local or state matter, and should not be of concern to the federal government. Federal efforts would undoubtedly be better served keeping a bomb out of the hands of al Qaeda than keeping a bong out of the hands of a marijuana smoker."

None of the arrests took place in Austin, although long-established head shops here serve the community's smoking needs in plain view of law enforcement. According to a spokesman for the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, busts of bong dealers and head shops are mostly up to local police, prosecutors, and citizens.

Under the Texas Controlled Substance Act, a person commits an offense by "knowingly or intentionally" using or possessing with intent to use or distribute drug paraphernalia. If Austin head-shop owners target and market their wares to people who would use them for illegal purposes, says APD spokesman Kevin Buchman, "they should be concerned about that. They have to follow state law." Local head-shop employees contacted by the Chronicle would not comment on the DEA's actions.

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