Tucked in the back of a nondescript industrial park named for fault-lined Rose Canyon sits a small company that is in a world of trouble with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the guy who lost a U.S. Senate race to a dead man.
The Zong Toy Company, which manufactures a variety of water pipes and other products that Ashcroft has labeled drug paraphernalia, is one of a number of companies nationwide that are in the rifle scope of Ashcroft and his band of lifestyle police who seem intent on bringing down the paraphernalia industry.
In a much-ballyhooed media event last week, Ashcroft announced that 55 people had been indicted in a countrywide crackdown on so-called head shops that offer merchandise deemed illegal by the U.S. Justice Department. Among those indicted were the operators of the Zong Toy Co., which the Justice Department alleges is a national distributor of drug paraphernalia. Yesterday, no one at the Morena Boulevard company would come to the door, although music could be heard coming from behind a large metal bay door.
“I think I'd be nervous, too,” said Bob Doyle, president of the San Diego chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We had no idea this was coming. Undoubtedly, a lot of people are shocked.”
Federal law is quite clear on the topic. It says unequivocally that it is unlawful for any person to “sell or offer for sale,” “use the mails... to transport” or “import or export” drug paraphernalia, with a maximum prison sentence of three years for each count. Those convicted would also face forfeiture of their products, which would then be “destroyed or [used] for law enforcement or educational purposes by federal, state or local” agencies.
The feds define drug paraphernalia as “any equipment, product, or material of any kind which is 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.”
State law is equally straightforward on the matter. “It basically says you can't own [paraphernalia] if its primary purpose is to somehow help you ingest illegal drugs,” Doyle explained. “It's odd. If you look at the state laws on the books, they're very explicit about what a head shop can and cannot do. And as far as I know, the head shops in San Diego follow all those rules pretty tightly.”
Debra Hartman, spokeswoman for the local U.S. Attorney's office, said the indictments came out of federal offices in Pennsylvania and Iowa, where prosecutors are notorious for interpreting these laws very narrowly. The indictments reportedly came after the companies charged had distributed their products to those states. Hartman said three arrests were made locally, but she could offer no further details on those arrests.
“The government's out of control,” said Kurt Dornbush, owner of The Black, a counterculture institution for decades in Ocean Beach. Dornbush spoke hesitantly about the crackdown, pointing out that Ashcroft had targeted companies that distribute paraphernalia via the Internet. “We have no Internet sales. If you aren't old enough, you can't come in here.”
Most head-shop owners contacted by CityBeat declined to discuss the crackdown, reasoning that drawing attention to themselves might be a bad idea. “Everything's up in the air right now,” said one before cutting off the conversation.
Doyle of the local NORML said he has received calls from head-shop owners from as far away as Hawaii and Salt Lake City-“they couldn't find a local NORML chapter,” he explained-asking how far he thought this crackdown would go. “Well, I'm not sure if it will get worse, but what's going on is somebody decided to enforce the laws that have been on the books for an awful long time but have been widely ignored,” Doyle said.
The chapter president may not have all the answers-no one seems to-but he has an idea why it's happening. “These are easy targets. I think Ashcroft and his friends went after [head shops] because they wanted to deliver a morale blow to the cannabis-culture people in America. It's kind of a blow to a lot of people's morale,” he said. “It gets people to start thinking, ‘Oh man, head shops aren't going to be in business anymore?'“
Some people were also curious about some of the comments made during Ashcroft's press conference last week when he unveiled the results of what the Justice Department dubbed “Operation Pipe Dreams” and “Operation Headhunter,” the latter which involved the local indictments.
“The drug paraphernalia business is now accessible in anyone's home with a computer and Internet access,” Ashcroft sneered during his announcement. “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.”
John P. Walters, who recently brought us those drug-use-helps-terrorists TV ads as director of the National Drug Control Policy, called the marketing of paraphernalia “an active affront to the efforts of parents, educators and community leaders who are trying to help young people stay away from dangerous drugs.”
Walters-perhaps, as some suggest, in a backhanded slap to states with medicinal marijuana laws on the books-also praised federal law enforcement officials who “reaffirm the truth that no community, no city, no state and no nation is better off with more drug use.”
Patrick Dudley, a local attorney associated with NORML who has represented medical-marijuana users, is like many who wonder about timing of the indictments, while the fed's efforts to track down terrorists in this country languishes. “The fact that they're spending this much time and energy on drug paraphernalia seems ridiculous,” he said. “They did this in the early '90s, and they drove a lot of these big bong-making businesses out of business. The feds will probably end up dealing with these people, not having them serve any time and just forfeiting their assets.
“I think they simply want to put them out of business,” Dudley said. “Very strange.”
Dudley also wonders what impact such an application of the federal drug-paraphernalia laws will have on San Diego's needle-exchange program. “Obviously, that could lead to dangerous consequences [increased disease and so on], but given the hysteria and politics... of this administration on ‘the war on drugs,' nothing would surprise me here,” Dudley said in a follow-up e-mail. “And moreover, like medical marijuana, this would present another case of the feds trumping local action on a particular drug policy issue.”
Discussion on the Internet almost exclusively pounds Ashcroft for the crackdown as terrorists and white-collar criminals continue to run free. “Ashcroft, you constipated freak, what are you hoping to achieve?” one crackdown opponent wrote. “We can only hope that this kind of mass arrest will lead to a court challenge of the law.”
Ethan Nadelmann, head of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes a rethinking of the nation's drug policies, chided Ashcroft and his cronies: “It's an absurd waste of resources. Their drug war is really a culture war that has nothing to do with creating a safer society. Referring to marijuana as a poison, when no one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, is absurd.
“These paraphernalia laws exist in no other advanced democracy,” she said. “They're uniquely American. There is no evidence that these laws have any impact on reducing drug use whatsoever.”