Have you ever looked at California's bong law? Have you ever really looked at it?
Selling glass pipes and water bongs is perfectly legal in the state, so long as their intended use is for smoking tobacco and not pot. That difference in intent may seem like a fine line, but it can mean the difference between making a buck and being totally screwed. Just ask the owners of the seven East County smoke shops whose businesses were raided last week by police and sheriff's deputies.
Acting at the behest of San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, authorities on Jan. 21 served search warrants at shops in El Cajon, La Mesa and Santee. They seized an estimated 15,000 glass pipes, bongs and other items as part of an investigation into whether the owners violated the state's drug-paraphernalia laws.
None of the owners could be reached for comment by deadline, but an employee at one of the shops raided in El Cajon says authorities have it all wrong.
The DA's office “sent us a letter saying water pipes were illegal and that we needed to take them down, but they're not illegal,” she says, declining to give her name. “We called the DA's office about that, but they never called us back. Then police came in and said, ‘You didn't take the water pipes down, so we're seizing them.' We lost about $50,000 in merchandise.”
Asked to comment on the employee's claim that the seized items were legal under state law, El Cajon Police Lt. Steve Shakowski cited California Health and Safety Code 11364.7, which states that selling paraphernalia for the purpose of ingesting illegal drugs is a misdemeanor. As to how authorities knew the items were going to be used to ingest illegal drugs and not tobacco, Shakowski was blunt:
“I've been a cop for 25 years and worked narcotics for 11 of those years,” he says. “During that time, I have not encountered anyone who smoked tobacco out of a water bong. I'm not saying there aren't people who do—I've just never encountered them. We're making a distinction between hookah pipes and water bongs. Hookahs are from an older tradition—they look different and typically were used for smoking tobacco. The water pipes we seized—and we didn't seize any hookah pipes—are generally not used for legitimate purposes.”
Common knowledge aside, says DA spokesman Paul Levikow, authorities knew the intended use of the items because they knew it.
“Our undercover agents went into the shops making it clear what they wanted to use the bongs for,” he says, adding that the agents visited all seven of the shops prior to the raids. “The clerks knew what the buyer was buying the bongs for.”
Regardless of the intended use of the paraphernalia, Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project in San Francisco, says the real issue is whether the raids were a good use of law-enforcement time and resources.
“You're dealing with a jurisdiction”—San Diego County—“that's intensely hostile to marijuana,” Mirken says. “There's not the slightest evidence that paraphernalia laws have any impact on marijuana use. Even if these people have technically broken the law, this is law-enforcement activity that accomplishes precisely nothing.”