Pubdate: Thu, 27 Feb 2003
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Author: Frank Green


The $200 water pipes lining the shelves at Puff 'n' Stuff on El Cajon 
Boulevard look like props from an old Cheech and Chong flick.

Some stand 2 feet tall and come equipped with artistic ceramic bowls in all 
the colors of the psychedelic rainbow.

"These are strictly for smoking tobacco," said Sabrina, a clerk at the 
store who asked that her last name not be used.

But don't tell that to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The federal government this week charged 55 people with operating dot-com 
sites that distribute drug paraphernalia, including water pipes, roach 
clips and miniature scales.

Ashcroft said the crackdown was necessary because the products could be 
bought by minors over the Internet without parental permission.

"The illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families 
across the country without the knowledge of their families," Ashcroft said.

Such tough talk scares the owners of some local head shops, who wonder if 
their storefront businesses could be the Justice Department's next target.

Several dozen San Diego County shops  including The Black in Ocean Beach, 
Glass Act on El Cajon Boulevard and Visions in Pacific Beach sell the same 
types of elaborate, pricey, glass-and-ceramic water pipes that were 
advertised on the Web sites shut down this week by the Justice Department.

"The government probably wants to stamp out this market," said Vic McCully, 
owner of Synthetic Trips on University Avenue.

McCully said he has no problem with the Justice Department closing Internet 
entrepreneurs who have been shipping bongs and other related items to minors.

"No one can come into (Synthetic Trips) who's under 18," said McCully, who 
opened the store in 1967.

Behind him were shelves stocked with oversize water pipes featuring garish 
depictions of cobras and grinning satyrs.

At least one local head-shop owner said he is considering discontinuing his 
extensive line of water pipes and converting the store space to carry 
alternative books, DVDs and other products in light of the government's new 
hard line.

"I don't want to do jail time for selling somebody a water pipe," he said, 
requesting anonymity.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said the raids on the Web sites Monday 
targeted companies that were specifically advertising their products as 
drug-taking accessories.

But the distinction between selling water pipes purportedly for use with 
tobacco and pipes for smoking marijuana is not a clear one, DEA spokeswoman 
Magdalena Martinez said.

"If (a certain pipe) is illegal, it's definitely possible" that the 
government could go after small retailers selling that product, she said.

Certainly, the drug paraphernalia market, which has an estimated $1 billion 
in annual sales, is enjoying sky-high visibility.

April's issue of High Times, for instance, is jammed with ads for 
everything from bongs and rolling papers to hydroponic growing systems and 
detoxifying drinks.

The magazine's centerfold? A pictorial selection of huge marijuana buds 
dubbed "Mother's Finest," "Super Kali Mist," "Buddha's Sister" and "New 
York City Diesel."

"I think the government's attitude is that water pipes and other stuff are 
against the law and that anybody who sells them is a criminal," said Steven 
Wishnia, a senior editor at the magazine. "But whether they're going to 
want to bust every little Joe's Hippie Hut in the country is another thing."

Wishnia estimated that there are several thousand head shops in the United 
States, as well as many retail stores that sell water pipes and other 
similar goods on the side.

In the Monday raids, investigators nationwide seized thousands of tons of 
illegal products, the Justice Department said.

Defendants in Operation Pipe Dreams have been charged with conspiring and 
offering to sell various types of drug paraphernalia, both felonies.

The 55 defendants were charged in 35 indictments. Each charge can bring 
three years in prison under federal statutes.

Eleven Web sites of online drug paraphernalia retailers  including,, and  now redirect users to a 
message from the DEA informing them that those sites have been "restrained" 
by the government.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart