Pipe Down

Pipe Down

By Laura Fries

Local head shops and glass artisans pay the price of a new law

Tom Roland is a charming man: articulate, politically passionate, and out of work, because he can no longer practice his craft without fear of spending three years in federal prison. (Roland asked that the Current not use his real name for the same reason.) Like many local artisans, he's had to balance the joy of his craft with the demands of making a living. And since Roland is a glassblower, he made his living handcrafting pipes to sell to local head shops. As he eloquently puts it, "Straight art that doesn't have a function is really hard to sell, `but` when it has a function, people spend a lot of money on it."

He speaks lovingly of his work, describing the process of transforming rods of borosilicate into pieces of art. Show him a handmade piece, and he can tell you in which state it was made - and if it is local, who made it. Roland is part of a small community of San Antonio glass artisans - one of a half-dozen, he estimates, that were abruptly put out of work when the Drug Enforcement Administration and the San Antonio Police Department issued "letters of notification" to local head shops, warning them if they persisted in selling pipes, they would be prosecuted.

Now, walking into a head shop is a different experience. Crackerbox Palace has put away all but its traditional wood pipes, the only ones they are still allowed to sell. Planet K still has rows of tall water pipes on display - but they are not for sale. For years, head shops had gotten away with selling pipes by placing signs around the store; stating that the pieces were not for illegal use. It sounds simplistic, but it was based on law: Police couldn't prosecute the shops unless they could prove that the businessmen knew that the purchaser was going to use the piece for illicit purposes. "They thought that was getting them by the law," states SAPD Sergeant Ken Albrecht. Now, due to pressure from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, San Antonio is applying a stricter federal statute that clearly prohibits the possession of such pipes - and doesn't require local police to prove intent. "The DEA and the U.S. Attorney's Office are all working together on this concern about head shops selling drug paraphernalia," explains Sandy Gutierrez, SAPD public information officer. The coalition makes it difficult for local officers to comment on the progress of the investigation. Albrecht, citing that "some of the people involved work out of different offices," referred even general questions to the U.S. Attorney General's office.

Now, due to pressure from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, San Antonio is applying a stricter federalstatute that clearly prohibits the possession of such pipes - and doesn't require local police to prove intent.
The movement isn't restricted to San Antonio. It began in February 2003, when Ashcroft's much-publicized Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter nailed cult star Tommy Chong for his pipe business, Chong Glass. While other purveyors were caught in the raid, Chong received the worst sentence: nine months in federal prison. The wave of crackdowns has swept the nation, and it has some people scared. Planet K refused to comment, fearing to make the situation worse, and posted "No Cameras or Media in All PK Stores" on their front windows.

Those in the business are worried about more than the possibility of going to jail: They're wondering about their livelihoods. Crackerbox Palace, which according to Roland carried nearly 75 percent locally made pipes, was a pillar in the alternative community. Reading in the San Antonio Express-News that the owners, the Lopezes, were forced to switch "from steak to beans" brought a tear to Roland's eye. "We're just local good people who care about our community, local culture, art - we all have families. It's really sad." Josh Stone, a Crackerbox employee for 10 years, describes the drop in business: Before the crackdown, business was so heavy that he "couldn't watch TV. Now, `he's` seen all the Road Rules ... all the shit on MTV." He's one of many who are cynical about the origins of the crackdown: "When I grew up in history class, I thought shit like this had to be voted on."

Stuck without his craft, Roland is doing his best to continue working. Asked if he considered himself a businessman as well as an artisan, he pauses. "Yes. `It's` a profitable business. Unfortunately, it's not a business anymore. I can't sell them locally. I have no reason to make them." His modest business, which brought in $14,000-$16,000 a year, has been pulverized. Now, he's asking his neighbors if they want their lawns mowed.

The political implications of the crackdown are more than evident to Roland. "I think more than targeting the businesses or the consumers, they are targeting the culture. They pretend it doesn't exist as they sweep under the rug things like education and healthcare, and spend billions on a war when we're all suffering to pay our bills." •

By Laura Fries


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