In a city that prides itself on its ability to keep a secret, a trade show that prefers not to be mentioned by name is underway. The businesses that have purchased booths here ask to remain anonymous as well. This is a paraphernalia convention. Hundreds of vendors from across the country gather at this venue twice a year to hawk every species of marijuana smokeware known to stonerdom.
However, what they call their merchandise is a tortured exercise in semantics. Apparently, bongs are for tobacco use only. And, by the way, they’re not called bongs anymore. They’re called “tubes” or “bubblers.” Also, headshops no longer exist. Paraphernalia retailers now call their stores “smokeshops” or—I kid you not—”contemporary tobacco-accessory outlets.”
Upon hearing this gem from a Texas storeowner, I responded with an incredulous expression, the equivalent of “you gotta be kidding me.” But the storeowner just shrugged and said, “I’m paranoid, man.”
He’s referring to the principal achievement of the nationwide crackdown on “illegal drug paraphernalia” that began in February 2003. Operations Headhunter and Pipe Dreams were launched by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and primarily targeted companies that owned Internet sites. Ashcroft and his henchmen had become alarmed that the “drug-paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge.” The raids netted 55 busts in seven states, including Tommy Chong, who served nine months in federal prison.
At the time, the paraphernalia industry was traumatized. Web sites vanished in a matter of minutes. Distribution networks were trashed. Many companies shut down overnight. Of course the government claimed victory, with Drug Czar John Walters declaring: “Today’s actions send a clear and unambiguous message to those who would poison our children. We will bring you to justice, and we will act decisively to protect our young children from the harm of illegal drugs.”
Walters couldn’t have looked more foolish had he been standing on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit with a big banner behind him reading: “Mission Accomplished.” The crackdown on smokeware may have created all kinds of paranoia and misery, but the paraphernalia industry is flourishing. Business may be conducted differently, but smokeware companies are once again turning a healthy profit.
Attorney Robert Vaughn of Nashville, TN, is matter-of-fact about the reasons why. “They can’t bust everybody,” he says. Vaughn’s been actively involved in drug-paraphernalia legal issues for 25 years and has represented clients in 35 different states. He also publishes a monthly newsletter, The Letter of the Law, which keeps subscribers updated on developments on the paraphernalia battlefront. “Since 1987, there have probably been 10,000 individuals who have involved themselves in this industry,” he says. “But there have only been about 600 cases prosecuted by the federal government. Following the initial shock that these raids created three years ago, I think people took a look around, reassessed their businesses and then went back to work.”
Yet the raids haven’t ceased, and unfortunately retailers now seem to be in the crosshairs of the Feds. In 2005, stores in Jacksonville, FL, and Santa Fe, NM, were raided; however, no indictments were filed. Raids were also carried out in Montana, but this time prosecutions followed. So the question still remains: If paraphernalia is your profession, how safe are you?