A federal judge in Baltimore yesterday issued an order preventing Prince George's County from enforcing its ban on the sale and possession of drug paraphernalia until he can decide whether the ban is constitutional.
In a three-page order, U.s. District Court Judge Joseph Howard said that "the public interest is served" by allowing head shops to continue selling bongs, rolling papers, pipes and other drug devices because those merchants would be harmed if they were unjustly forced to shut down by laws passed by the Prince George's County Council last month.
The judge's order was quickly criticized by County Council members who supported the politically popular antidrug measures. "A federal court has interfered negatively in Prince George's before -- by ordering busing -- and now here we are again," said council member Sue V. Mills, who sponsored one of the laws. It's a very dangerous precedent."
The two bills, passed by a wide margin by the council and recently signed into law by County Executive Lawrence Hogan, outlaw the possession sale, delivery and advertisement of items such as water pipes, scales, needles and sifters and allow the county to revoke the license of any found to be selling the drug devices.
The laws banning possession and sale carry a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Based on a model drawn up by the Carter administration, the law is the first of its kind of the Washington area. However, similar measures have been introduced throughout the country, including two that are scheduled to come up in the Maryland legislature next year.
Representatives of the drug paraphernalia industry filed suit against the two bills shortly after they were enacted. The merchants said the terms restricted by Prince George's -- including balloons, envelopes and other containers for packaging small quantities of drugs -- have legitimate uses.
Fred Joseph, lawyer for the Mid Atlantic Accessories Trade Association and several Washington area manufacturers and distributors, said yesterday, "We think we have a good shot at getting these statutes over-turned because of unconstitutionality. They're just too vague."
Joseph said that he is requesting a permanent injunction against the measures because the laws are "impossible to enforce. There are no standards for determining [if] there has been a violation. How is a police officer to know that a particular pipe is designed for smoking drugs and not for smoking tobacco."
In his opinion yesterday, Judge Howard said that the court action was not intended as an endorsement of the paraphernalia industry.
"Although the court is sympathetic to [the county's] stated desire to rid itself of a severe and growing drug abuse problem," Judge Howard's order read, "little credence can be given to the contention that granting [a delay of the ban] will somehow worsen the drug abuse problem in Prince George's County."
County officials said yesterday that the judge's order was unlikely to have an immediate impact on their effort to control paraphernalia sales, because a means to enforce the paraphernalia las had not yet been found.
Hogan himself has already questioned whether the county will ever be able to enforce the ban. "Are you going to raid all the drugstores and confiscate needles?" he said last week. "Most states have laws against fornication and adultery, too, but they don't enforce them.