We can all agree that the placement of cannabis on the DEA’s drug schedule is silly. But federal—and some state—laws regarding drug paraphernalia are just preposterous. Broadly speaking, drug paraphernalia is defined as anything that is used or intended for use with drugs. This includes the beloved glass pipe that almost every pot smoker has owned at some point. Under title 21 of the Controlled Substance Act, “it is unlawful for any person (1) to sell or offer for sale drug paraphernalia, (2) to use the mails or any other facility of interstate commerce to transport drug paraphernalia; (3) or to import or export drug paraphernalia.”
The penalty for violating paraphernalia laws is imprisonment for no more than three years and a fine under title 18
State laws can be just as silly if not more so in states with draconian cannabis policies. Whereas the federal law specifically prohibits the sale of paraphernalia, prohibitive state laws also punish possession. For example, in Texas, the possession of a glass pipe can lead to a $500 fine. Selling a glass pipe can land you a year-long imprisonment sentence and a fine of up to $4000, and that’s just for first-time offenders. Subsequent offenses are considered felonies. In Alabama, a use or possession with intent to use conviction will result in a year of jail time and a fine of up to $6000. Selling or delivering paraphernalia is considered a felony and punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
The severity of these laws may come as a surprise given the ubiquitous presence of “smoke shops” all over the country, including in states where marijuana remains illegal. Truthfully, paraphernalia falls pretty low on the totem pole of priorities for law enforcement. That explains the dissonance between the law and the prevalence of glass paraphernalia despite it. Things weren’t always this way, though. In fact, there was a time when the feds thought that targeting drug paraphernalia would be an effective strategy in waging its war on drugs.
The Rise of the Glass Pipe
The origins of glass blowing are as ancient as those of cannabis. Many historians credit its invention to the Mesopotamians in 3500 BCE. The theory is that its creation was an accidental byproduct of other technologies that existed at the time.
Because of its high melting point, glass has been used to create pipes since glass blowing was invented
In the 1960’s, the popularity of glass smoking technology exploded as people appreciated the craft’s aesthetic and utility. In the 1980’s, the artistry of glass evolved when Bob Snodgrass, a man widely regarded as the godfather of artistic hard glass, discovered fuming, a technique in which silver and gold are vaporized to produce an array of colors. Snodgrass gained recognition by selling his pieces while following The Grateful Dead tours. The prevalence of glass paraphernalia has only increased since then. Consumers can purchase all kinds of smoking devices in tobacco shops, in some gas stations, and online.
The manufacturers of these products often label them with warnings that they are only meant to be used to smoke tobacco, making it difficult for the feds to penalize their distribution. Moreover, manufacturers weren’t worried about the feds since it didn’t seem like the feds were particularly worried about them. In 2003, that all changed when manufacturers of this smoking technology became federal targets.
Operation Pipe Dreams
In 2003, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan of the Western District of Pennsylvania celebrated the indictment of 27 people on charges of paraphernalia trafficking. Ashcroft stated, “The drug paraphernalia business is now accessible in anyone’s home with a computer and Internet access. […] Quite simply, the illegal paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge. […] Today, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, under the leadership of Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and Associate Deputy Attorney General Karen Tandy has taken decisive steps to dismantle the illegal drug paraphernalia industry by attacking their physical, financial and Internet infrastructures.” Ashcroft’s statement criticized the illegal paraphernalia industry for its confusing signals to the youth who the government, schools, and parents were trying to protect from exposure to illegal drugs. Ashcroft claimed that Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter (another paraphernalia operation conducted in Iowa and resulting in the indictments of four corporations and nine individuals) sent “a clear and unambiguous message to those who would poison our children.” So what exactly did Operation Pipe Dreams entail? On February 24, 2003, the government raided the homes of 55 people, including the infamous Tommy Chong, the only person who actually received a prison sentence. In order to protect his wife and two sons from receiving their own criminal charges, Chong
In order to protect his wife and two sons from receiving their own criminal charges, Chong plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia.
In return, his family was not prosecuted, and he was given a nine-month prison sentence and a year of probation, fined $20,000 and forced to forfeit $103,000. It seemed that the government used his arrest and imprisonment to send a message to the cannabis community. That message cost the government $12 million and the labor of 2000 law enforcement officers, and while it did put some glass operations out of business, it did nothing to curb interest in cannabis. The entire idea behind the campaign—that eliminating pipes and bongs would somehow put a dent in cannabis use—deeply underestimated the versatility of cannabis (it doesn’t have to be smoked to be consumed) and the creativity of cannabis consumers (apples and soda cans, people).
Fourteen years after Operation Pipedreams, approximately 60 percent of Americans are in favor of the legalization of cannabis. Cannabis is now legal for either medical or personal use in 29 states plus the District of Columbia. This wave of approval and legalization sends its own unambiguous message to the bureaucratic systems that clearly favor money and bigotry over health and progress: you can keep trying, but cannabis (and its shiny paraphernalia) is here to stay.