RALEIGH -- Just about every college town in America has stores that openly sell marijuana pipes and other accessories that everyone knows can be put to illegal use. Now federal authorities in North Carolina have waded into what many thought was a gray area of the law by cracking down on head shops. On Monday, Frank D. Whitney, the U.S. attorney for central and Eastern North Carolina, announced that federal, state and local agents raided six businesses last week to launch "Operation Pipecleaner."
Officers seized nearly 3,800 glass and metal pipes, along with rolling papers and other items from four stores in the Triangle on Thursday, court records show. Two of the stores are next to N.C. State University. Agents said they also raided two stores near the UNC-Wilmington campus and hauled away paraphernalia.
The operation in the Triangle has been going on for three months.
"Drug paraphernalia distributors legitimize the use of drugs by selling through public retail establishments but acting deliberately ignorant of the use of paraphernalia devices," Whitney said at a news conference. "Most importantly and most frightening, drug paraphernalia distributors prey on impressionable youth, targeting universities and high schools and distributing through the Internet."
The local seizures were at Buddha's Belly, 2112 Hillsborough St., Raleigh; Snap Dragons, 2526 Hillsborough St., Raleigh; Rock 'N' Roll Outlet, 3601 Capital Blvd., Raleigh; and Rock-N-Roll Village, 2808-B U.S. 70 West, Clayton. In Wilmington, Buddha's Belly, 830 S. Kerr Ave., and Expressions, 419 S. College Road, were also raided.
Owners Could Be Cited
No one was arrested, but Whitney said store owners could be charged. Three of the store owners or managers in Raleigh declined to comment; the fourth couldn't be reached.
Drew Skidmore, co-owner of Expressions, said the store has been in Wilmington about six years and had the permission of local law enforcement to sell its pipes.
"We market them for tobacco; we don't want them to be used [for drugs]," he said. "But I don't know how you can really control that."
Skidmore said it wasn't fair to say the store was trying to lure children to buy pipes just because it also sells skateboards. "They sell candy in convenience stores," he said. "I don't know where you draw the line."
Whitney said the operation sends a message that the merchandise is not legal, even though it's sold openly.
He also said he wants to warn youth that marijuana is typically six or seven times more potent than it used to be, leads to harder drugs and is a health hazard. He added that most of the marijuana sold in North Carolina is no longer grown locally but comes from drug cartels from Latin America.
Whitney said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive last year, urging federal prosecutors to target drug users.
Congress in 1986 made it a felony to mail paraphernalia, and in 1990 made it illegal to sell or offer for sale pipes that are primarily used to ingest drugs. The law defines specific kinds of pipes. There is no state law that could be used.
Kris Krane, associate director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said Monday in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., that the North Carolina crackdown is new.
He said the Justice Department has prosecuted large paraphernalia makers and online distributors but hasn't gone after head shops on such an organized level.
"It's an utter and complete waste of money," Krane said. "We're talking about busting businessmen here, not street dealers. ... This is a relatively new development and a scary one."
On Monday, one of the stores, Snap Dragons, was closed. Empty display cases could be seen through the dark glass windows. Agents reported seizing more than 800 pipes from the store.
Down the street, Buddha's Belly remained open despite the loss of more than 640 pipes, which were only a small part of the store's business. It also sells skateboards, clothes and other merchandise.
Paul Newby, the assistant U.S. attorney who coordinated the investigation, said mixing merchandise is a concern to authorities.
"The owners of drug paraphernalia businesses glamorize drug use by stocking drug paraphernalia along with clothing, posters and other items, such as skateboards, that are attractive to young adults," Newby said.
Whitney said that the government will continue to concentrate on drug traffickers, but that will be easier if authorities can also reduce the demand for illegal drugs.
"We have to draw the line somewhere," Whitney said. "Let's draw it at drug paraphernalia, because it's so blatantly illegal."
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