When bongs are outlawed…

Here's hoping you finished your gift shopping early, especially for that friendly, red-eyed pothead on your list. 'Cause if you didn't already buy little Derwood a hand-blown, color-changing, double-thick glass bubbler for a special stocking stuffer, you'll have to improvise with a cardboard tube and some tinfoil. This is because the Grinch -- actually, federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security -- stole nearly all the Christmas pipes in Broward County. Glass pipes. Metal pipes. Stone pipes. Wood pipes. Steamrollers. Dugouts. Bongs. Sliders. Stems. Screens. Baggies. Scales.

Relax -- you can still buy rolling papers. But for how long, Spock? For. How. Long?

On the afternoon of Friday, December 12, a task force of federal agents surprised eight Broward County head shops, taking their most popular wares, ensuring that their booming holiday business would be a bust. The Sun-Sentinel reported that agents seized items that were "being used solely for the ingestion of illegal narcotics." After reading the news reports over the weekend, Bandwidth decided to survey the damage.

First, a visit to what we naively conjectured would be the most receptive, um, joint: Peace Pipe, a well-stocked store at 4800 N. Dixie Hwy., Oakland Park. We had personally patronized the place, and the staff was always cool and friendly. Maybe they'd be even more so once I told them I was with New Times, the newspaper that presented the store a Best Head Shop award earlier this year.

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The big store looked as if a team of elves had cleaned out all the pipes and replaced them with a glittering armada of trinkets, knickknacks, and doodads. The lack of clerks in the front and chatter from a half-closed door behind the counter indicated that a pow-wow was taking place. When a burly dude emerged to ask if we needed help, we replied that we wanted to talk about the bust.

He retreated into the back room for a second, then reemerged, flashed a thin sliver of a straight-faced smile, and said: "No comment. I'm going to have to ask you to leave the store now."

Evidently, unless you're toting a badge and a gun, head shops don't want you around. It's easy to understand why a small-business man wouldn't want to take on the federal government, but the fact is, George W.'s henchmen are acting illegally, and the proprietors are surrendering without a fight. After all, these store owners had their pipes -- not their balls -- taken away.

Next on the list was We-B-Joys at 3565 N. Powerline Rd. The front section of this large store was already heavily knickknacked; the "adult only' section was in the back. A clerk behind the counter was telling a would-be customer the sorry tale: "Last Friday, every store in Fort Lauderdale that sells pipes was raided," she explained to the dude, who slumped against the glass case as he heard the news.

At the back of the store, an extremely paranoid woman who would identify herself only as We-B-Joys' owner looked absolutely befrazzled, with hair that appeared stressed from being tugged by the roots. Eyes bugging, hands practically trembling, she explained that the December 12 incident has spurred her to abandon the paraphernalia business for good. She worked at Macy's for 18 years, she explained, and she'd gladly return.

When Bandwidth approached with a notebook, Ms. Befrazzled stared in wide-eyed horror, as if the spiral-bound paper could actually be a deadly weapon. "Please don't quote me!" she cried. "I can't take this anymore. I just want to get out of this business! And I'm glad to get out!"

Two years ago, "like an idiot," she said, she bought the store. Now she can't wait to give it back. She exuded so much trauma and stress that it actually lowered our blood pressure to leave We-B-Joys.

Then it was down to Twisted Mellon at 60 E. Oakland Park Blvd., where co-owner John Fry said he was working that Friday around 11 a.m. when the agents strolled in. "It was scary," he told Bandwidth, adding that it was almost 4 in the afternoon when they finished poking around. "But I have to say, they were very nice. They even cleaned up after themselves."

Fry holds no grudge against the agents, though he doesn't understand why a raid rather than a letter describing nonkosher items was necessary. He estimates that pipes made up around 25 percent of the store's total revenue and believes Twisted Mellon will do just fine as a full-fledged novelty shop, complete with vibrators, lotions, incense, natural cigarettes, posters, T-shirts, and the like. He's canceled future shipments of pipes, and if distributors still send him some, he said, "I'll just refuse the order."

At the moment, Twisted Mellon plans no legal recourse. "I'm not going to fight it, because I don't have a clue as to what I'm fighting. Why would I hire an attorney? I haven't been charged with anything. They want you to give 'em $2,000 just to talk. I'd rather put that money into the body jewelry and rings, stuff like that," Fry said. "Besides, what if we do get [the pipes] back? I don't know if I'd be comfortable selling them again. It's unfortunate, but the world's changed. Fighting people just isn't part of my life. I don't think that makes me a coward. I'm a retailer, not a martyr."  

At Mushroom Place (903 Sunrise Ln., Fort Lauderdale), a manager said he had voluntarily cleaned out the pipes, save for about a dozen tobacco pipes that would look perfect poking out of grandpappy's corduroy shirt pocket. Closer to Casa de Bandwidth, the no-frills Cloudy Daze (3610 Davie Blvd.) is gone, with a pair of "For Rent" signs already decorating the windows. How's that for getting in the spirit, right at the apex of the retail season?

Following a beachfront Bandwidthian bolsterization via icy pints of beer, it was back to the office to give old Peace Pipe a ringy-dingy to find out why they did me so wrong. After all, we pointed out, they were still the Best Head Shop in New Times' estimation. "That's really nice," said a manager named Matt, serving up a piping-hot side order of unsolicited sarcasm. "We're not called a head shop, actually. Head shop is a term from the '60s about pot users or something. I know nothing about that. I'm an herbal blend and tobacco shop."

For sure, dude! But isn't this a case of the government arbitrarily deciding to confiscate items that are not illegal? And isn't that, like, fascism or something?

"People are saying fascism and Nazis and stuff, and I don't feel that," Matt answered. "I'm not saying I'm totally happy about what's going on. They're just doing their job, and I'm doing my job. You know how the government sometimes does things wrong? The way I feel, right or wrong, it's still my country. And man, this is a great country. You know it is. So what they say goes. I'm a law-abiding citizen."

But, Bandwidth argued, say you ran a Publix supermarket, and one day agents came and took all the bread -- rolls, buns, baguettes, the whole yeasty lot -- and declared it contraband. What would you do?

"I'd just leave it alone, I guess," Matt said.

Man -- do I get this paranoid too?

Five phone calls to Alex Alonso (the special agent in charge of the Miami Customs office) went unreturned, but the government's stance on paraphernalia is pretty clear. After starting out in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, in the mid-'70s, the U.S. went on a national jihad, even targeting head shops in Fort Lauderdale's Gateway Shopping Center later in the decade. By the mid-'80s, Operation Green Merchant went after grow stores, swept the country, and swooped down on hydroponics outlets on Oakland Park Boulevard.

Shaking down the shops continues to be one of law enforcement's favorite activities during the current Ashcroftian Era. Of late, the feds have approached it with a new fervor. They recently put the single most recognizable, vocal, and unrepentant dope smoker in the nation (Tommy Chong) behind bars for selling smoking accessories. Maybe it's just me, but raising the terror-threat level and attempting to secure the homeland by rounding up Pyrex pipes seems questionable.

"It's just a conflict of interest," Matt insists. "It's just a little disagreement."

That may well be the case, but the fact remains that the government hasn't justified these search-and-seizure expeditions.

"They don't have anything better to do? That's ridiculous," opined a 40-something woman in a conservative business suit who strolled into Twisted Mellon after work, looking for a pipe. Does the DEA truly believe that by grabbing all the bongs in town, folks will just stop getting high? Everyone knows that dope'll get you through times of no money better than money'll get you through times of no dope.

The feds' mission is destined to fail. Americans, even the lazy, pot-smoking ones, are an enterprising lot. If Ashcroft tries to ban the bong, we'll circumvent him by drilling holes in our empty Arizona Iced Tea bottles and inserting $1.29 worth of rubber grommets and metal tubes purchased from Home Depot.

Those digital scales sold at head shops can be used for weighing items by the gram, and often are, but there's nothing about a scale, per se, that is "solely for the ingestion of illegal narcotics." Metal screens can still be found at any hardware store. Buy a 39-cent alligator clamp, glue a feather on there -- and hey, you've built a dangerous roach clip that'd make any terrorist proud. The government's selective enforcement indicates its lack of respect for the millions of responsible, taxpaying Americans who simply like to get high, eat Cheetos, and watch reruns of ER.  

The agents provided stores with receipts for the confiscated goodies, as the law requires, but no one at any of the locations seemed to think he or she would ever see the wares again.

What, do you suppose, the feds did with all those pipes and bongs? Did they crush them into Pyrex powder? Auction 'em off? Use 'em as teaching aides for inner-city youth? Or maybe they plan to give them away to needy kids this year, sort of a "One-Hitters for Tots" program? This Christmas Eve, as Bandwidth packs a big-ass bong hit in honor of the Little Lord Baby Jesus, I'll say a special prayer for all those lost pipes.

It's time for pot smokers from all walks of life to come on out of the closet and lead a citizen rebellion. Local attorney Norm Kent, who also sits on the national board of directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, understands the chilling effect the raids have had on local pipe stores. "It's a legally and financially demanding responsibility to go after the government," Kent says. "It's easier to give in. Some will stand up and assert their constitutional rights; they will prevail. So John Fry and Twisted Mellon have to decide whether they want to be one of those people."

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