The shelves at the Bethesda head shop called Good Stuff were bare, and the only roach to be seen was of the insect type, scuttling across the straw mat where yesterday exotic models of drug paraphernalia had been on display.
Owner Dick DeChant had spent the morning loading $10,000 worth of bongs, fan-operated water pipes and Big Bambu rolling paper into a green van across the street from the shop that had been his livelihood for the last seven years. Now he was waiting for the call that would tell him whether he would have to take his business and flee the state of Maryland.
When the call came at about 2:30 p.m., the bearded, blue-jeaned, self-styled entrepreneur jerked his thumb toward the floor and said: "That's it. He suggests getting out immediately? Okay."
Similar conversations were occurring throughout Maryland yesterday as businessman and others like DeChant who manufacture, sell or own drug devices were told of a U.S. appeals court decision in Baltimore that will allow state and local police and prosecutors to begin immediately enforcing a tough new ban on drug paraphernalia.
The sweeping and politically popular measure, which was approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Harry Hughes last spring, has been under challenge by an association of paraphernalia entrepreneurs and three businesses specializing in the trade. Despite their claims that the new measure was unconstitutionally vague a federal district court judge recently upheld the law but gave the businesses a 10-day stay in which to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
Yesterday, as the 10-days drew to a close, two U.S. appeals court judges turned down a request by the businesses that the stay be extended until their appeal can be heard and then ruled on by the full federal appeals court. The judge's ruling yesterday permits the state to crack down beginning today on the burgeoning and lucrative drug device industry.
Officials in Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs's office said yesterday that they have informed local prosecutors and state and local police that the new law could be enforced as of 12:01 this morning.
State prosecutors and police officials in various counties said that they will inform praphernalia dealers and those who frequent so-called head shops that the sale, possession, manufacture or use of drug devices now is illegal and punishable by $500 fines for first offenses and imprisonment for more serious violations, such as selling paraphernalia to a minor.
As a result of the court ruling, law enforcement authorities now will be able to obtain warrants to enter stores or homes and make arrests if they can show that the pipes, syringes, balloons and other items covered by the new law are intended for use with illegal drugs. The items can be legally sold and owned if they are not going to be used with drugs.
Because the new ban covers many items commonly found in drugs stores, hardware stores and supermarkets, the paraphernalia industry and its lawyers claim that the law will be unenforceable or put into effect in an inconsistent and discriminatory manner.
Several police officials and prosecutors said they were unsure about how to enforce the new law. "We will have to have a meeting with the state's attorney to see what avenue to pursue on this," Prince George's County Police Chief John E. McHale said yesterday. "We won't do anything until we meet with them. We won't be out there tonight arresting people."
Van Tipton, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Accessories Trade Associations, which was a party to the suit against the law, said that after the ruling against the stay came down yesterday he called various praphernalia businesses and told them to be ready for police enforcement of the new law.
"Everyone's worried about overzealous police," he said. "Everyone's worried about having their merchandise seized and a lot of people are moving their inventories [out of Maryland]."
Fred Joseph, attorney for the four paraphernalia businesses that filed the suit, said that he has told his clients that they "could stay open and see what the state will do, move out, close down or sell Time and Newsweek for the next six months until the case is decided."
DeChant, 28, who was peddling paraphernalia on Georgetown sidewalks before he opened Good Stuff in 1973, decided to move out.
"It's the sign of the times," DeChant said. "The Moral Majority's in power."
Two customers came by to find the shop closed. DeChant took the reggae music off the record player, and looked around at the uncontroversial goods still left in his store -- copies of the drug magazine High Times, some candles, and a few psychedelic figurines.
"It wasn't the bongs," DeChant said. "I had my own business. I said that in the past tense, didn't I? I still think the U.S. is the greatest country, though. It's been a helluva education. I'm going to trim my beard and travel."
He was off to out-of-state points, either in the District of Columbia or Virginia, where head shops have not been outlawed. Where, exactly, he wouldn't say.