The holiday shopping season will be brief and bitter for San Diego's smoke shops—or at least those that depend on sales of glass pipes for their holiday revenue—courtesy of City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
In the days just before Thanksgiving, Aguirre, via the Drug Abatement Response Team (DART), sent out 200 letters to 52 smoke shops citywide, informing them that they must, by Nov. 30, stop selling anything that is considered drug paraphernalia by California law. Specifically, that means all the glass pipes, all the water pipes, all the little baggies, all the scales—all that stuff must go. Disobedience can be punished with a year in jail or a $1,000 fine per type of illegal equipment on display, which for some shop owners could work out to tens of thousands of dollars and an unpalatable chunk of jail time.
“We made a decision we're going after every single shop that sells drug paraphernalia,” Aguirre told CityBeat. “We're literally going to try to stop it.”
Bong-selling smoke shops arose after California made direct sales of drug paraphernalia illegal in 1983. Selling gear that could ostensibly be used for tobacco provided a legal opening for some shops to keep the gear on their shelves. “Bongs” became “water pipes,” and “meth pipes” became “oil burners.” Regardless of the terminology, the shops became a focal point for neighborhood ire and an easy target for law enforcement. Aguirre said shutting down the shops has been on his list of goals from the moment he took office in 2004.
“What those guys are doing is making it possible to use drugs on a much more intense level,” Aguirre said. “They're marketing to younger people. We see lots of youngsters going in and buying, lots of kids in high school buying all that crap. Those guys are exploiting a market in the same way the tobacco companies exploit the teenage market.”
Institutionally, the City Attorney's office has been trying to shut down smoke shops well before Aguirre took office. The head of DART, Makini Hammond, is a 20-year veteran of the office who filed her first smoke-shop-related action back in 1993. More recently, she had been working on a new ordinance, passed by the City Council in October, that tightened up the permitting requirements for smoke shops of all kinds but didn't go as far on the paraphernalia as she'd hoped. But with that project completed, Hammond and Aguirre felt ready to move against the smoke shops, a task Hammond described as “long overdue.”
The first step was to gather intelligence on the shops. Hammond said they used police work and other mechanisms, but they knew where to send letters, mainly thanks to “a network of community and civic organizations” that have been putting the spotlight on new shops.
“The shops attract a very negative element,” said Arthur Schwartz, the president of the North Park Community Association. “You have kids that are sent a message that it's OK to sell this stuff.”
Schwartz has seen several shops open in North Park recently, and he helped organize a protest march on Nov. 15—the same day the letters went out—along University Avenue. The neighborhood's representative on the City Council, Toni Atkins, couldn't attend the rally, but she said in a statement that she supported the effort to “stop the proliferation of smoke shops.” She also sent a memo to the city attorney, asking him to look into writing tougher laws similar to a hard line recently taken by the El Cajon City Council.
Not everyone thinks this type of enforcement is the best use of the city's resources.
“What is the motive and intention here?” asked Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the head of the local office of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Has it really been a long-neglected community problem, or is this an easy way to pretend to be doing something significant about drug use?”
Attorney Patrick Dudley has made medical marijuana cases a focus of his work. He hasn't read the letter, but from what he's heard, he suspects the city attorney might be stretching the definition of paraphernalia.“If the shops are selling pipes that can only be used for meth, that's pretty hard to defend,” he said. “But if he's saying they can't sell bongs, the city attorney may be overreaching, and he's probably impeding the lawful use of marijuana by people in pain and suffering.”
Smoke shop owners, for their part, are reeling. The letters arrived unexpectedly—as one Pacific Beach store owner put it, “right from the clear blue sky.”
For most owners, pulling all the products covered by Aguirre's letter would pretty much put them out of business, even stores that sell other products. The High Road, in Pacific Beach, has wet suits and skateboards on display. But roughly 25 percent of the sales floor, near the back of the shop, is given over to glass pipes of all shapes and sizes, from a 5-foot-tall water pipe standing in a glass case to a host of smaller hand-blown pipes, each with a unique swirl of colors and patterns. Every customer who entered the store while CityBeat was there walked past the sports gear with nary a sideways glance and headed straight for the pipes.
“It may be just a quarter of the store,” said Johnny, the store manager who declined to provide his last name, “but it's 80 percent of the revenue.”
Apparently, selling drug and tobacco related paraphernalia is highly profitable. Tim Adams, owner of Glass Works, also in Pacific Beach, said he earns enough profit in his shop that he paid $15,000 in taxes last year. Makini Hammond says the money-making potential in this sort of smoke shop explains why new ones keep popping up. Raw materials are cheap, she said, so margins are high.
As of Tuesday morning, the owners of the shops were flailing to come up with a response. Many wouldn't speak to CityBeat out of fear of retribution from the city or their fellow owners. Some said they were giving up. Shops all around town are offering discounts up to 50 percent in the hopes of clearing their inventory before the deadline. Small groups of college and high-school students wandered from store to store trying to snag a deal (the law says the owners must ID anyone who looks younger than 27 before they can sell them anything). At one shop, the owner desperately offered two-for-one and three-for-two deals on pipes to anyone who showed even a little interest. Other owners are trying to pool resources to hire an attorney, but they're having a hard time getting organized. Adams, the owner of Glass Works, plans to fight.
“We're going to wait for them to come and give us a citation, then we'll fight it in court,” he said.He says he has a legal right to sell his wares. A sign in his store neatly sums up his position: “For tobacco use only. We do not sell b_ _ _ s.”
“How should I control what people use them for?” he said.
For the city attorney, the primary purpose of the letters was to end the argument.
“It should now be clear to all of them,” Hammond said, “these items are illegal. You will be prosecuted.”And besides, she said, few people outside of the shops take the for-tobacco-use claim seriously. Aguirre himself actually laughed into the phone at the idea. Hammond merely scoffed.
“People have common sense,” she said. “Juries have common sense.”
Update: City Attorney Mike Aguirre told CityBeat on Wednesday that his office's joint investigation with the San Diego Police Department will focus on paraphernalia for smoking meth and crack, not marijuana.
“The paraphernalia that goes for rock cocaine and methamphetamine is a lot different than paraphernalia that goes for pot,” he said. “If you look at some of the kits that are being used, you'll see what I'm saying.
“I can't allow the shops to become so interconnected with methamphetamine and rock cocaine like they are. I just can't look the other way on that,' he said. 'The marijuana is not of concern to me. That's not our focus at all.'
Perhaps the smoke shop owners can inhale more easily now. Aguirre expressed interest in working with them.