On February 24, a combined force of the DEA, US Marshals, US Secret Service, Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, and local police took their positions outside dozens of headshops across the US.
It was the most widespread anti-paraphernalia raid ever: a two-headed drug war monster called Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter.
As agents smashed into headshops, arrested owners, seized millions of dollars worth of merchandise and confiscated homes and stores, a wave of fear spread through the cannabis community. What do these raids mean to the future of our culture in America?
The case originally stemmed from an investigation of Akhil Kumar Mishra, who owned two head shops in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2000, Mishra was sentenced to two years in federal prison and his wife got five months, solely for selling paraphernalia.
The investigation of Mishra led DEA agents to another Pennsylvania store, called Heads-n-Threads. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the owner agreed to cooperate with the DEA, and turned over “records of online sales, Internet addresses and credit card information.”
Those records eventually led to raids on major distributors and online headshops in 10 states: Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Idaho, Michigan, Oregon, California, Arizona, and Texas.
There were over a dozen individual headshops targeted, including seven in the Pittsburgh region. Federal indictments were brought against 27 people in Pittsburgh, nine in Des Moines and 19 others elsewhere in the US.
10 of the busted distribution companies were based in California, including Headcase, 101 North Glass, California Colorchangers and Omnilounge. Other companies raided include the Zong Toy Company, Houston’s Smoke Stax, and Detroit’s Strange Daze Boutique.
Stores & homes seized
All the raided stores had their entire inventories hauled away, with authorities claiming they had grabbed “thousands of tons of drug paraphernalia worth tens of millions of dollars.” In many cases the stores themselves were also seized, along with offices and even private homes.
One example is Jason Harris in Eugene, Oregon, who had five buildings seized, including his Higher Source headshop, his Universal Glass Company store, two buildings housing Jerome Baker Designs, and his family home.
The California-based Chong Glass, owned by pot-comic Tommy Chong, was also raided during the nationwide action, although Chong himself was not charged or arrested.
Most of the 55 busted headshop owners and glass merchants were released after being held overnight, reportedly on a $24,000 guaranteed bond. Those who were arrested face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but their businesses are already crippled due to the seizure of their inventory.
For the children
The herb-hating trio of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Drug Czar John Walters and Acting DEA Administrator John Brown were all proud of their massive sweep. In interviews and press releases, all three of them claimed they were protecting children and families from the perils of drug abuse.
“The illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge,” said Ashcroft.
“Today’s actions send a clear and unambiguous message to those who would poison our children,” said Walters.
“People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different than drug dealers. They’re as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide,” concluded Brown.
In a pioneering move, many of the pipe sellers’ websites were also seized by the DEA, including puffpipes.com, aheadcase.com, pipesforyou.com, omnilounge.com, colorchangingglass.com, jeromebaker.com, smokelab.com, 420now.com, testingfree.com and others.
Under a court order, anyone trying to go to these websites is now redirected to a DEA website, where they are shown a glorious American flag and the following message:
By application of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the website you are attempting to visit has been restrained by the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania pursuant to Title 21, United States Code, Section 853(e)(1)(A).
Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to say if those who attempt to access the sites would be traced or investigated. But as the DEA now controls those websites they likely have access to the complete server logs and other electronic records.
Past pipe pops
Previous busts were a sign that authorities were looking at popping pipe dealers. In August, 2001, Chris Hill of the Florida-based Chills was arrested and charged by the Iowa District Attorney for selling bongs. Hill is currently in prison serving his 14-month sentence (CC #41, Bong makers busted).
In April, 2002, Pennsylvania residents Jason Greenwald and Lynn Salsbury were arrested and charged for selling glass pipes from their Internet accessory shop, Half Baked Ideas.
In September 2001, Barmes Wholesalers in Indiana was raided, and most of its inventory seized. The action against Barmes was also launched by a DA in Pennsylvania, after Barmes pipes were found during a raid on a local hemp store.
These raids were clearly a prelude for the larger inter-state action, and were launched by the same coalition of DAs from Iowa and Pennsylvania. These two states have long been known for their strict enforcement of federal paraphernalia laws, but they are now stretching their influence with raids against manufacturers in other states who make pipes sold in their two territories.
Glassblowers’ reactions to the busts varied from outrage to fear. Many were hesitant to talk with Cannabis Culture, and some were openly hostile to a post-raid interview with a marijuana magazine.
Mainstream media reports covered only a small portion of the damage done to what Attorney General Ashcroft called a “billion dollar” glass pipe industry. The busts of websites and storefronts were sensationalized, but thousands more individual glassblowers were also affected.
Their products have become nearly unmarketable, they are left unpaid for pipes recently shipped to busted stores, and suddenly they find themselves struggling with mortgages, car payments and hungry children. Hundreds of small businesses collapsed entirely.
The attack that destroyed and terrorized the glass pipe industry reminded some of the FBI’s attack on activists, labor unionists and dissidents in 1920, or the roundup of thousands of Muslims after 9/11. Some glassblowers have taken to referring to the day the US glass industry went down as 2/24.
Many glassblowers were shell-shocked, and some were ready to abandon pipes altogether – one glass artist is already blowing phat psychedelic dildos instead.
While dreading the next round of raids that might see them in jail alongside the dealers that sold their glass, most glassblowers we spoke to were defiant. Popular ideas included mounting a legal challenge and making pipes with “Fuck Bush” marbles.
“They just lit a fire under tens of thousands of artists’ asses,” one glassblower told Cannabis Culture. “Not one person in my field will forget to vote come re-election, guaranteed. Also, many of us are considering running for office ourselves. Most of us are young, and that means we have more energy to fight than 50-year-old politicians we can make a lot of noise and we will!”
“You don’t arrest the artists unless you are attacking a culture’s beliefs, mores and values,” said another glassblower earnestly. “It’s nothing short of cultural genocide!”
Despite anger toward the DEA, others in the industry thought they would be better off distancing themselves from pot culture altogether, perhaps selling their pipes in health food stores with legal smoking mixes like mullein, coltsfoot and peppermint.
Yet many high-profile glass distributors busted on 2/24 were already marketing their products for “legal smoking use only,” as were Chills and Barmes before their earlier raids. Their only reward was alienated customers, and obviously no protection from persecution.
It is likely that the next wave of oppression will target the writers, artists, and even musicians who teach about the benefits of cannabis and other magical plants. Some day soon, the very website you’re now browsing could be seized by the government. Let’s work together to keep that day from ever coming.