In a predawn raid on February 24, 30 local agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, acting on a directive from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh and Attorney General John Ashcroft, roused three local business owners from their beds and charged them with felonies.
Mary Louise Stone, 58; her 38-year-old son, David; and Eric Rodgers, 32, were charged with three felony counts relating to the unlawful sale of drug paraphernalia. The inventory at their glassware and ceramics business, Stone Artworx including a wide variety of glass and ceramic pipes, candy dishes, Christmas ornaments and dildos was seized.
The local arrests were part of a nationwide investigation known as Operation Pipe Dream; 1,000 law-enforcement agents participated in synchronized busts around the country, targeting manufacturers and distributors of glass pipes and bongs. The raids resulted in 55 indictments, from Eugene, Oregon, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Now, Valley head shop owners are worried they may be the next to feel the federal stings. And it soon may be hard to find a glass pipe in the Valley, as supplies dry up with the crackdown on glass blowers and nervous head shop owners reduce their inventories.
Even now, Web sites for popular bong and pipe manufacturing companies, such as Jerome Baker and Omnilounge, have been shut down. After the February 24th raid, customers found themselves staring at a large American flag and the words: "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)."
The February bust was not David Stone's first encounter with the DEA. Stone's attorney, Nick Hentoff, says his client ran a tint shop in Phoenix for 12 years, servicing car dealerships and the federal government darkening the windows of undercover DEA vehicles.
Stone purchased what would become Stone Artworx two years ago through a brokerage firm, and secured a Small Business Association loan, putting up his and his mother's homes as collateral. The past two years have not been easy. A fire in the first year of operation destroyed $1 million in lava lamps, and Stone concentrated heavily on pipes to get his company back on its feet. He branched out into glass sex toys and dildos, which would guarantee a steady stream of customers, Hentoff explains.
"His goal was to be the largest manufacture and designer of ceramic and metal products," says Hentoff. "Pipes were a small part of that."
Although Stone continues filling orders for dildos for catalogue companies such as Adam and Eve, he has had to let go all 22 employees, and he fears he may lose his home. Stone, his mother and his business partner face three years in prison and $250,000 in fines, if convicted.
"It's very frightening when you have the full weight of the U.S. government come down on your head," says Hentoff.
Glass has become the material of choice for smokers, and the glass blowing industry has boomed in recent years.
"When I first started blowing glass five years ago, there were maybe four or five of us here in the Valley," says a man who blows and sells $30,000 worth of pipes and bubblers from the garage of his Scottsdale home each year. "Now, I would say there are two to three hundred of us."
The glass blower, who didn't want his name used for fear of prosecution, was introduced to glass blowing through a friend, who would blow pipes on the porch of his apartment. The glass blower was working for Chase Manhattan Bank at the time.
"I would go to work every day, and my friend would just kick it on the porch for a few hours, and he was making more money than I was." He soon quit and began blowing glass full-time.
Today, he sells to a few local shops but sends the bulk of his pieces to stores in New York. At least he did prior to February 24, or "Black Monday," as it is known among glass blowers.
"I'm a little leery about sending anything through the mail, and I really haven't been trying to sell much. Most of us are just laying low to see what happens."
He monitors an Internet glass blowing forum and says reactions from glass blowers have been varied.
"People don't know what to do. They're scared; they don't know where this is going to end. Many people have stopped making pipes altogether. Others are making 10 times as many while they still can."
He says he'd find the situation almost laughable if the potential charges weren't so serious.
"Here you've got Ashcroft bragging about taking down a $58 million industry. He's putting thousands of people out of work. What happened to encouraging private business?"
He takes an ornately swirled blue bubbler off a shelf. The pipe is stunningly intricate, the result of 18 hours of work. He'll sell it, he says, for around $300, probably to a collector. (Some pipes and bongs can go for more than $1,000.)
Glassware is artistic and ornamental, he insists. What people do with his products once they purchase them should not be his concern and certainly not something he should be arrested for.
"We should not be criminally charged for other people's intent," he says.
But the federal government disagrees. In a press conference held the day of the arrests, Ashcroft stated, "Quite simply, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge. This illegal billion-dollar industry will no longer be ignored by law enforcement."
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws recently sent a letter to Ashcroft, suggesting that the federal government's effort to put pipe sellers out of business is off-target.
"It is time for the Justice Department to reassess its priorities and stop wasting federal law enforcement resources on such trivial endeavors," NORML wrote. "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."
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, says the group has received hundreds of e-mails from retailers, wholesalers and artisans "who all believe they have a constitutional right to blow these products and sell them."
In fact, he points out, they do not and will not, unless laws are changed. Laws governing paraphernalia are based on intended use of products to perform a criminal act and encompass any item "primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance, possession of which is unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act.
Federal law specifically identifies items such as "metal, wooden, acrylic, glass, stone, plastic, or ceramic pipes with or without screens, permanent screens, hashish heads, or punctured metal bowls, roach clips, water pipes, chillums and bongs."
Despite what the product could be used for, it is the intended use that turns a flower vase into a bong, or a tobacco pipe into illegal paraphernalia.
"Intent laws," says St. Pierre, "Set a very scary precedent in a free market democracy."
Head shop owners throughout the Valley are worried that their shops will be the next targets of DEA raids. Few shop owners will talk about Operation Pipe Dream on the record.
Ted Kaercher, owner of Headquarters, a smoke shop in Tempe, says he's nervous the feds will come knocking on his door.
"I'm definitely worried and lowering our inventory, but it's almost a moot point. They busted all those companies I buy from; they could go through those records and use that to go after me."
He wonders why his sign saying "For Tobacco Use Only" isn't good enough anymore, and why no warnings were given that selling pipes was illegal. Kaercher sees it as part of a general trend of the federal government usurping the rights of individuals.
"They're making the hugest thing possible of this at a time when pipes should be the last thing on their minds."
Some glass blowers and others involved in the business have already launched letter-writing campaigns, but they doubt the campaigns will have any effect.
There is talk of an organized protest.
"Some people are saying, What if we take our pipes and go sit in front of head shops with a Sherlock and smoke tobacco?'" says the glass blower.
Tony Coulson, a public information officer for the DEA in Phoenix, is firm about the illegality of those who fabricate and market drug paraphernalia.
"If they are selling glassware that's for the purpose of illegal drug use, then they have a problem with federal law."
Yet, he adds almost wearily, "Is DEA Phoenix or the Arizona Field Division going to go after head shops?"
He pauses. "You know, we have a lot of work to do here. This is the southern border of the United States, and we're busy."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.