The merchandise in the Penguin Feather Records and Tapes shops in Northern Virginia is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the drug culture: glass-tubed water pipes, delicate scales and Grunge Off, a cleanser for "smoking accessories."
Those devices are illegal in Virginia -- if the seller intends the customer to use them with illegal drugs such as marijuana or cocaine. But Penguin Feather has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that the merchandise in its pointedly labeled "Tobacco Shops" is intended only for innocent pleasures.
Penguin Feather requires its tobacco Shop customers to sign an imposing document pledging they have no plans to break the law.
A counter sign reiterates the company's position. "Studies reported by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in their Journal of the National Cancer Institute," it reads, "have shown that tobacco smoke filtered through a water pipe contains less tar etc. than smoke from standard pipes, cigarettes or cigars!"
"There is no question they'recircumventing the law," said Robert F. Horan, the county's chief prosecutor. "But they're doing it within the confines of the law."
When Virginia followed Maryland's lead on July 1 and banned drug paraphernalia, police say many merchants in Northern Virginia stopped selling the disputed items. A lawyer for Penguin Feather said the chain's continued sales are perfectly legal.
"Nothing is paraphernalia in and of itself," explained Jonathan Shapiro, who represented about 23 stores this summer -- including Penguin Feather -- in an unsuccessful court challenge of the new paraphernalia law. "It's only paraphernalia if it's intended to be used for controlled substances."
Horan agrees that the state law hangs on "intent," but Fairfax police and officials are not convinced of Penguin Feather's motives. They are sending undercover agents into the "Tobacco Shops," applying pressure on the stores' landlords and proposing a law that would require registration of anyone who buys a water pipe so that police could inform the parents of young customers.
Fairfax Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III recently convinced Irvin Payne Jr., landlord of Penguin Feather's Baileys Crossroads shop, to evict the store when its lease expires in April if water pipes and similar goods continue to be sold. "The young kids are bad enough already," the 62-year-old Payne says. "Why give them another hang-up to hang their hats on?"
Supervisor Audrey Moore, whose Annandale District includes another of the chain's eight shops, wants a law that would require police notification of any minor buying a drug device. Shapiro said Penguin Feather already refuses to sell to minors.
As if anticipating further efforts by the Fairfax officials, Penguin Feather has printed small calling cards:
"Through statements to us by you we have reason to believe you may use this purchase with an illegal substance," the cards read. "NO ITEM we sell is intended for use with any illegal substance, therefore, we must refuse to sell you this item."