Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters that the government would ask a U.S. district court in Pittsburgh to point the sites to a Web page at the Drug Enforcement Administration explaining why they were taken offline, a new twist in crime-fighting.
"With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has exploded," Ashcroft said. "The drug paraphernalia business now thrives not only in small shops but it is now accessible in anyone's home with a computer and Internet access...Quite simply, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge."
The prosecutions, called Operation Pipe Dreams, represent the federal government's boldest attempt yet to shutter Web sites that sell drug paraphernalia. Under current federal law, that category includes any product that is "primarily intended" for use with illegal drugs, including water pipes, roach clips, chillums, bongs, and small spoons used with cocaine.
Ashcroft said that a total of 27 people in a dozen states had been charged with selling illegal drug paraphernalia in an investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and centered in Pittsburgh. The list of Web sites targeted in coordinated raids that took place on Monday includes PipesForYou.com, OmniLounge.com, ColorChangingGlass.com, 420now.com and PuffPipes.com.
As of Monday afternoon, many of the sites were still reachable. OmniLounge.com describes itself as a "one-stop head shop for a wide selection of water pipes and smoking accessories at great prices," and AHeadCase.com, which says it has two stores in southern California, sells water pipes and drug test kits.
If the court orders the sites to be redirected, Ashcroft said, they will point to a DEA.gov Web page that says: "By application of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the Web site you are attempting to visit has been restrained by the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania pursuant to Title 21, United States Code, Section 853 (e)(1)(a)."
Keith Stroup, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said it was ridiculous for the Justice Department to be indicting bong sellers when the United States is on high terror-alert status. "This latest enforcement initiative is primarily an expression of extremism of this particular attorney general," Stroup said. Ashcroft "is a right-wing zealot. Now I'm not a fan of the Bush administration, but I have to think that President Bush and most of his serious advisers have far more serious work to focus on right now than whether someone's selling rolling papers and roach clips."
"You simply cannot outlaw rolling papers," Stroup said. "They're perfectly legal assuming that they're used with tobacco. Those of us who smoke marijuana can always find rolling paper to roll our joints with. All this is going to do is criminalize a class of young entrepreneurs."
In a 1994 case that arose out of the same law, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague and that prosecutors do not need to "prove specific knowledge that the items are 'drug paraphernalia' within the meaning of the statute."
Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said redirecting Web visitors to DEA.gov raises novel legal issues. "It sounds like this is a concluded drug operation segueing into a new sting operation," he said. "In effect, the defunct Web sites become electronic flypaper for those looking for illegal drug paraphernalia, reporters covering the story, and people who have trouble spelling in Google."