In 2003, hundreds of businesses and homes were raided as a result of Operation Pipe Dreams – the code-name for a U.S. nationwide investigation targeting businesses that sold pipes and bongs. The investigation took advantage of a little-used statute that exists in select states which prohibits the use of “the mails of any other facility of interstate commerce to transport drug paraphernalia.”
Hundreds of businesses and homes were raided as a result. Out of the 55 people charged with trafficking of illegal drug paraphernalia, 54 of them were sentenced to fines and home detentions. The exception? Tommy Chong, the Canadian-American comedian, actor, writer, director, activist, and musician, faced more than merely a fine and a few month of house arrest.
Tommy Chong originally gained fame as part of the cannabis-themed comedy duo Cheech & Chong back in the late 70’s and 80’s; by 2003, Chong had launched his own glass pipe businesses, Chong Glass Works and Nice Dreams.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Nice Dreams actually had a policy in place for refusing to sell glass pipes to states where the above-mentioned statute was enforced. To get around this, federal agents actually disguised themselves as fake head shop owners and pressured Tommy Chong’s son, Paris Chong, to sell these “head shop owners” pipes and deliver them through the mail to a fictitious shop in Pennsylvania. When Paris persistently refused, agents went to the place of business in person and ordered a massive quantity of out-of-stock merchandise. The merchandise was crafted but not picked up and sat idle in the warehouse as federal agents again pressured Paris to ship it. To get the merchandise out of his warehouse, Paris eventually agreed to ship it. Let’s take a moment to remind the reader of the definition of entrapment: ‘entrapment is a practice whereby a law enforcement agent induces a person to commit a criminal offense that the person would have otherwise been unlikely to commit.’
In a plea bargain, Tommy Chong agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia in exchange for non-prosecution of his wife, Shelby, and his son, Paris. He was sentenced to 9 months in a federal prison, a fine of $20,000, forfeiture of $103,000, and a year of probation. Federal Prosecution admitted to being harsher on Chong, in retaliation, citing Chong’s movies as trivializing “law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use.”
The final total of money necessary to fund this federal fiasco was a whopping $12 million which included the resources of 2,000 law enforcement officers.
Another victim of this politically-motivated operation was Jason Harris, one of the most renowned glass blowers in the business and a former owner/operator of Jerome Baker Glass. He’s one of the lucky few to have apprenticed with the legendary Bob Snodgrass, the father of the functional glass scene.
“I woke up at 6:00 a.m. in the morning with someone banging on my door and saw the massive amount of police and army people at my house. I got hogtied and arrested and I didn’t actually know what was going on until I got to the jail cell and was watching T.V. in jail and realized there was a much larger issue than I was aware of.”
Although Jason Harris was not incarcerated like Tommy Chong, he too feels that he was targeted for political reasons. “I have been singled out to make a political statement with the United States Justice System,” Jason declared. “I have a completely sideways take on it because I had the biggest company in the business and now I’m not allowed to have any company in the business.”
Could Operation Pipe Dream be considered a success from any angle? Obviously not, as confirmed by United States Drug Enforcement Administration and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) member, Sean Dunagan. “I know there are other glass blowers and shops that went out of business as a result of it but it was really misguided. I mean the notion that you’re going to stop drug use by going after a company or really if they had the resources and the inclination to go after every company.”
“You don’t need a pipe to smoke marijuana; obviously papers or a crushed up coke can or all kinds of things will work. So the idea that this would have any impact whatsoever is ridiculous… …It was a tremendous waste of money, a tremendous waste of resources that had no impact. It was blatantly targeted prosecution made for political purposes.”
In an interview featured in the functional glass pipe documentary Degenerate Art, glass artist Jason Lee recalls, “There were definitely a few months there when OP Pipe Dreams happened that, no one knew where to get rid any other work, and there was a massive panic that it would be the end of the scene, that we would all like starve and have to get real jobs.”
“The whole industry took a step back and said, what are we doing? Can we keep doing this? Do we have to find another way to do this? What are the parameters? Do we have to stop putting carbs on it? You know what I mean? The whole implied intent thing, it really kind of shook everybody and everyone just kind of paused game for a second. But what it did, honestly, was it pushed the culture underground even farther,” says Dave Popowitz.
It soon became apparent that not all was lost.
“Before this Operation Pipe Dreams there was a lot of inspiration, we had guys out there making the biggest, the baddest pieces they ever could do. And as Operation Pipe Dreams came into play, pipe stores and heady stores would not buy these very expensive pieces, because they were worried that by having their money tied up in these big pieces, if something happened they would be screwed. But as the industry slowly started creeping itself back, it was actually sort of a starving market for the heady pieces at some point,” commented Abe Fleishman.
Although most of the raids ceased after 2005 and many in the industry saw President Barack Obama’s election as a sign that a new chapter was beginning, the effects of Operation Pipe Dreams can still be felt nationally. But ultimately, the operation merely put a dent in the industry. It was only a matter of a year or so that shops started selling pipes again, although a bit more carefully. The main lingering effect is that saying the word ‘bong’ in a headshop is like saying ‘bomb’ on a plane – you will probably get kicked out. The word ‘bong’ implies that the piece is to be used exclusively for marijuana. Therefore, shops only sell glass pipes that are ‘intended for tobacco use only.’
The industry has actually recovered with numbers greater than before the bust. Tommy Chong is back to selling glass pipes, and even has his own line of rolling machines, grinders, vaporizers and other products. Jason Harris now runs Jerome Baker Designs in Maui, Hawaii and produces some of the most innovative water pipes around. Check out his short film, appropriately titled ‘Pipe Dreams’, which highlights what he’s now up to – creating some of the most massive art pipes ever created.
Also be sure to check out our recent interview with Jerome Baker on our Artist Insights section where he discusses some of his other recent works including his Robot Rig series.
Disclaimer: All functional items sold by The Cupboard and CupboardGlassPipes.com are strictly for tobacco use only.
Aaron Golbert aka Marble Slinger (Director). (2012). Degenerate Art [Documentary]