San Diego As he dashed into downtown's federal courthouse for a hearing last Tuesday afternoon, Ocean Beach's Shea Artis McComb didn't appear to resemble a hardened kingpin of the narcotics underworld. But the lanky, 31-year-old McComb, attired in olive drab ill-fitting slacks, green long-sleeved cotton shirt, heavy black shoes, and Buddy Holly-style horn-rimmed glasses, is one of the principal targets of a nationwide dragnet against drug paraphernalia launched two weeks ago by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Surrounded by a phalanx of somber-looking deputy U.S. attorneys from the states of Iowa and Pennsylvania, where a slew of indictments had just been handed down by federal grand juries, Ashcroft proclaimed that McComb and his fellow defendants, including two others from Ocean Beach, were at the heart of a massive criminal conspiracy to subvert the youth of America.
"With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug-paraphernalia industry has exploded," Ashcroft proclaimed, as he described the fruits of "Operation Pipe Dreams," his wide-ranging sweep of head shops, websites, manufacturers, and other alleged drug-linked miscreants. "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. This illegal billion-dollar industry will no longer be ignored by law enforcement."
"Those who sell drug paraphernalia are not only violating federal law, they are supporting a culture of illegal drug use," chimed in U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan of Pennsylvania. "Drug users, in turn, by creating demand for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, and other illicit substances, are responsible for the violence and huge profits which accompany drug dealing in our cities and communities."
"People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different than drug dealers," added John Brown, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide. These criminals operate a multimillion-dollar enterprise, selling their paraphernalia in head shops, distributing out of huge warehouses, and using the World Wide Web as a worldwide paraphernalia market. With Operations Pipe Dreams and Headhunter, these criminals are out of business, and 11 illicit dot-coms are dot-gone."
At the heart of the case, according to federal prosecutors, is a little-known -- and, critics say, little-enforced -- law that bans the sale of virtually any kind of device that can potentially be used to get high. "Federal law defines drug paraphernalia as those products that are primarily intended or designed to be used in ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise using controlled substances, and include user-friendly and dealer-friendly devices," says a justice department news release describing the case against McComb and 54 other people from Michigan, Iowa, and California named in 35 separate indictments. "Items such as miniature scales, substances for 'cutting' or diluting raw narcotics, bongs, marijuana pipes, roach clips, miniature spoons, and cocaine-freebase kits, among other things, are all considered drug paraphernalia."
McComb, the government alleges, was engaged in a "conspiracy to sell and distribute drug paraphernalia." His fellow defendants from San Diego, as named in the indictment, include Catherine Nicole Adamson, Bruce Dean Ross, and what prosecutors allege to have been their companies, Grow Industries, Seedless Clothing Co., and Zong Toy Company, which records show have an address on Morena Boulevard. The pipes and other articles McComb and company allegedly sold on the Web include the "Little Z Mini Bubbler Survival Kit," the "Fat Fish Bowl," the "Fat Twist," and the "Nice Ass Handblown Pipe."
If found guilty of the felony charges, McComb and the others could face up to three years in federal prison and be subject to $250,000 in fines for each count, of which McComb faces seven. That theoretically subjects him to a total prison term of 21 years. It's a situation that Charles Duff, McComb's court-appointed San Diego attorney, says is unprecedented.
"I think these days the justice department should have something better to do with its time," Duff says. "I've been practicing law for over 20 years and never seen a federal paraphernalia case here before. When I got this case I read the statute, and it's pretty shocking. It's very detailed, including bongs and roach clips."
McComb, who spent several days in downtown's federal lockup before his mother managed to get him out on a personal surety bond, now has to pay his own way to Iowa to face the charges against him, says Duff, who advised his client not to speak to reporters.
According to a Dun and Bradstreet credit report dated October of last year, Grow Industries, listing Shea McComb as president and Kate Adamson as vice president, had 12 employees and grossed an "estimated" $2.3 million. But according to Duff, McComb "says he isn't rich. He told me he's been living in the warehouse. He says he's in the clothing business now. The indictment goes back to acts alleged in 1999." The attorney added that his client "fashions himself as somewhat of an artist. His blown glass was real pretty stuff."
Having posted bond here, McComb and his fellow defendants must find new attorneys to handle their cases in Iowa. And they must also foot their own living expenses there while awaiting hearings and trial. Keith Stroup, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, says that supporters hope to raise a defense fund on their behalf. The effort is being organized in part by High Times magazine, many of whose advertisers were indicted as a result of Operation Pipe Dreams. "It's an extraordinarily foolish use of resources," Stroup says of the Ashcroft-led crackdown. "Especially at a time when we are about to go to war. We were at Code Orange when this occurred, and yet, what are they doing? They are out chasing people who sell pipes and rolling papers. The word that comes to mind is moronic."
Stroup acknowledges that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling 20 years ago upheld the federal paraphernalia law but vows to continue the fight against it. "Marijuana has become a symbol for the far right in the country," he argues. "I don't need a pipe to smoke marijuana. I buy the paper at a tobacco shop that sells a hundred different pipes. Anybody who wants to smoke marijuana from a pipe can do it. It doesn't have to be a bong. The Attorney General knows this doesn't have anything to do with drug use. It's pure symbolism."
Although Ashcroft has threatened to take down the websites of those indicted in Operation Pipe Dream and redirect their visitors to the justice department site, as of last week, the Zong site was still in business, with a pre-indictment note saying, "We can no longer ship tobacco accessories to anyone under the age of 21. UPS adult signature requires that the receiver be 21 or up. If that sucks for you, then bitch at UPS. It's not our fault."