When D.C. City Council members passed a bill banning the sale of drug paraphernalia in Washington, they were aiming at L. Page (Deacon) Maccubbin and businessmen like him, owners of the city's so-called "head shops." But to hear Maccubbin tell it, they missed.
By the time the measure cleared Congress Sept. 17, Maccubbin had completed a $37,000 remodeling job at his store, Earthworks, which has dispensed the accouterments of the drug culture since it opened its doors off Dupont Circle nearly a decade ago.
He had stocked up on $20,000 worth of imported cigarettes and other tobacco goods. He is removing from Earthworks the drug-oriented literature and products decorated with marijuana leaves or other symbols of the drug culture.
But when the new law takes effect Jan. 1, the items that have been Earthwork's stock in trade for years will still be for sale. What customers do with them when they get home, he says, is their own business.
"We've always been a smoke shop," says Maccubbin, who also owns a Washington book store. "We have simply shifted into a different section of the smoking market."
So it is with many others here, who are greeting the new law with a shrug, and an off-the-record wink.
"The law doesn't affect us," said Page Wieneck, vice president of Penguin Feathers, which sells smoking apparatuses through retail outlets in Georgetown and the suburbs. "We don't sell drug paraphernalia."
Much debated and promoted as a means of cracking down on drug abuse, the paraphernalia measure passed the City Council in June, making Washington the last jurisdiction in the area to move against sales of such merchandise. Council members first proposed a law requiring registration of paraphernalia dealers and forbidding street sales and sales to minors. Under public pressure, the proposal blossomed into an outright ban.
Like similar laws around the country, the Washington statute was modeled after a Drug Enforcement Administration prototype. So far, the new laws have withstood a variety of legal challenges, most recently in a case decided Wednesday by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
In some cases, law enforcement officials claim, the laws have succeeded in driving vendors off sidewalks and shutting down shops that blatantly engage in the drug paraphernalia trade. There have been six prosecutions in Virginia in the last year, two of those in Alexandria. In Prince George's County, the first Washington-area jurisdiction to pass such a law, "most of the head shops have virtually disappeared," said Assistant State's Attorney Robert Bonsib.
Like D.C. store owners, however, some prosecutors say the law may force merchants to change the name of the beast, but do little to make it go away. Said Fairfax County's prosecutor, Robert F. Horan: "It's pure malarkey."
Washington officials, with no idea how many stores here market items aimed at the drug culture, or in what quantities such merchandise is sold, acknowledge they are uncertain whether the law will be effective at all.
"I know what the law prohibits," said D.C. City Council member David A. Clarke, "but I don't know what they're selling. So I don't know whether the law will have an effect or not."
"People are always finding ways to circumvent the law," said D.C. City Council member Jerry A. Moore Jr., one of the measure's chief engineers. "It's like any other law: It won't be any more effective than the law enforcement agencies are willing to carry it out."
A D.C. police spokesman said no policy has yet been developed for enforcing the law.
Store owners say the legislation is vague and unenforceable. Enforcement rests on whether merchants intend to sell paraphernalia for drug use and that, prosecutors say, is hard to prove.
Howard Fain, a 33-year-old entrepreneur and licensed tobacco retailer, owns Headquarters on upper Wisconsin Avenue, as well as a similar store in Ocean City. Fain said Maryland's antiparaphernalia law has had no effect on his beach business, and that he expects none in the city.
"If we are advised that certain products are against the law, then we will remove them," he said. "We're there to make money, not to be in the middle of an issue one way or the other."
In its suburban stores, Penguin Feathers requires customers to sign a statement saying they are not making purchases for drug use. But no decision, Wieneck said, has been made on whether to start the same procedure in the chain's Georgetown store.
Five years ago, with a $200 investment, Sheldon Lawrence started selling paraphernalia as a vendor on the city's sidewalks. Anticipating a city law that would ban such sales on the street, he recently opened Relics of the 60's in Georgetown where, along with tie-dyed shirts and bumper stickers, he markets an assortment of pipes and other smoking gear.
Lawrence's wife, Kate, a coowner, said they will continue their street vending business at Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW at least through Christmas. They have applied for a tobacco license, but are hoping, she said, that the new D.C. law will be overturned in the courts before it goes into effect.