If this key were a real one, perhaps the six members of the International Trade Commission could lock the docket and throw it away.

But the key described in docket 498 at the Trade Commission is no key at all, but a cigarette holder, a marijuana cigarette holder that is shaped like an automobile key.

And a small businessman in Los Angeles, John Herman, claims that some foreign manufacturers are violating the U.S. patent he owns on the design of the "key clip" and are selling similar products illegally in the United States.

He wants the trade commission to put a stop to it.

The commission met yesterday to decide if they should investigate whether foreign manufacturers are infringing the patent which Herman wons. It was a decision they preferred not to make.

In the best bureaucratic tradition, after finding that the petition was imperfect and that they have six days before they have to rule on Herman's request, the commission deferred that decision for six days.

The commission got conflicting advice. Staff investigating attorney Steven Morrison - who wore one of Herman's key clips as a tie clip - recommended that the commission proceed.

N. Timothy Yaworski, of the general counsel's staff, recommended that the case be dropped. Not only were there probelms with the petition, but there is a moral aspect to the case, too. Should the government protect a maker of marijuana paraphernalia?

Morrison noted that the U.S. government already had granted a patent on a roach clip.

When a marijuana cigarette (a joint) burns down to a stub (the roach), it becomes too hot to hold, so users need some device (the clip) to hold the roach in order to avoid burning their fingers.

Herman said in a telephone interview that he is being hurt not only by foreign competitors, but by domestic competitors as well. He also has filed suits against six California manufacturers he claims are stealing his patent. Both domestic and foreign makers are undercutting his price, he said.

The key clip that Herman's Spoon Ring Co., makes is designed to retail for $5 and to be sold to distributors for $1.25. He said his price has been driven down as low as 60 cents.