A Fake Rose in a Glass Tube Gives Root to Illegal Activity

Harrison Om, who has stopped selling the rosebuds at his Southeast store, says a community challenge of his liquor license was an incentive.
Harrison Om, who has stopped selling the rosebuds at his Southeast store, says a community challenge of his liquor license was an incentive. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

At an Exxon station in Southeast Washington, behind a thick pane of protective glass, an attendant in a white Yankees cap peddles chips, cheap cigars and fake roses inside tiny glass tubes.

The little cloth flower looks like a novelty item, something a smitten teenager might buy his sweetheart. But the rose is a ruse, police say, a distraction to be thrown away. The real attraction is the four-inch-long tube that holds the flower. It's a thinly disguised crack pipe, law enforcement officials say.

Convenience stores, liquor stores and gas stations in crack-infested neighborhoods in the Washington area sell what the street calls "rosebuds" or "stems" for $1 to $2. For an extra $1 or so, a crack user can buy a golf-ball-size wad of scouring pad for a filter -- the "Chore Boy" or "Chore," named after an unlucky brand.

"I kind of laughed the first time I saw one," said Sgt. John Brennan of the D.C. police narcotics unit. "They're always trying to beat us. They're always thinking of new things."

And authorities and activists are always there to fight them: Anacostia residents, with the help of the Korean American Business Association, have launched a campaign to stop the sale of the rosebuds, and D.C. Council members introduced legislation yesterday to toughen the drug paraphernalia laws.

D.C. police say it is unclear whether the rosebuds are intended as harmless trinkets, but they say they have never seen them used as anything but crack pipes.

One panhandler in Southeast with a habit of up to $100 a day said he buys about four a month because the glass breaks easily, especially in the cold. On a well-lighted sidewalk, he demonstrated how to use the pipe filter, rolling a small ball of the scouring pad like cookie dough until it turned into a thin, two-inch-long roll that fit easily into the three-eighths-inch mouth of the pipe. The filter prevents the user from inhaling the rock of crack while smoking it.

The rosebuds, which carry no brand name, are made in China. Retailers buy them in bulk for about 10 cents each. Strictly speaking, they are legal because they can be seen as a novelty. But in many jurisdictions, including the District, store owners can be charged under paraphernalia laws if authorities can prove they knowingly sell them for drug use. Undercover officers in Germantown recently busted two store owners.

Many store owners keep them discreetly out of view yet maintain that they don't know how the rosebuds are used.

One overcast afternoon at the Exxon station, the attendant in the baseball cap sold a glass tube holding a two-inch-long pink rose -- then, unsolicited, offered up a piece of scouring pad.

Asked what customers do with the item, he said: "Different things. I don't comment on what people use them for."

Besides, he added, "everyone out here sells them."

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