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Feb. 24, 2003 - Operation Pipe Dreams is Launched

This Day in Cannabis History:

On this day in 2003, at the direction of Bush Administration Attorney General John Ashcroft, that the Dept. of Justice executed Operation Pipe Dreams: a two-year, $12 million, multi-agency sting operation that raided and arrested dozens of smokeware manufacturers and distributors across the country.

Under US Legal Code Title 21 Section 863, it is “unlawful for any person to sell or offer for sale drug paraphernalia; to use the mails or any other facility of interstate commerce to transport drug paraphernalia; or to import or export drug paraphernalia.” The statute defines “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, possession of which is unlawful under this subchapter. It includes items primarily intended or designed for use in ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing marijuana, cocaine, hashish, hashish oil, PCP, methamphetamine, or amphetamines into the human body," and goes on to specifically list 15 such types of products.

It was this statute that Ashcroft used to target the paraphernalia business. In a televised press conference that day, he stated in part:

“With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has exploded,” announced Ashcroft. “The drug paraphernalia business is now accessible in anyone's home with a computer and Internet access. And in homes across America, we know that children and young adults are the fastest growing Internet users. Quite simply, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge…Today, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force…has taken decisive steps to dismantle the illegal drug paraphernalia industry by attacking their physical, financial, and Internet infrastructures."

Hundreds were arrested and 55 were ultimately indicted. Among those caught up in the massive dragnet were Jason Harris, founder of Jerome Baker Designs (the largest glass smokeware company in the world at the time), and cannabis comedy icon Tommy Chong. Tommy and his son Paris were running two California-based companies: Chong Glass Works, making around 100 production bongs a day, and Nice Dreams, specializing in headier smokeable art pieces. Undercover DEA agents entrapped and pressured Chong's company into selling merchandise across state lines despite numerous prior refusals. To spare his wife and son from punishment, Tommy took the full rap—agreeing to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia.

Of all the individuals charged as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, Chong was the only one to see actual prison time: On September 11, 2003, he was sentenced to nine months in federal prison and a year of probation, as well as a $20,000 fine—not to mention the $103,000 in assets that were seized.

A smaller joint action, codename Operation Headhunter, was also launched the same day—targeting distributors in Michigan, California, and Texas, and resulting in nine more indictments. Despite expending huge amounts of money and resources, and destroying the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of glass artists and related businesses, Operation Pipe Dreams had very little impact in stopping or even slowing the manufacture or sale of paraphernalia in America.

For more about Jerome Baker and Operation Pipe Dreams, read this month's edition of Cannthropology: American Pipe Dreams.

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