Beyond the rows of albums at a Georgetown record store is an assortment of smoking and sniffing paraphernalia: water pipes, cigarette rolling paper and tiny spoons displayed in glass cabinets and on shelves. In clear view is a sign to customers that the merchandise is sold for use with legal smoking material only.
Many of the items, however, are the kinds used with illegal drugs. A city antidrug law that took effect this year has had little effect in discouraging the sale of items commonly bought by drug users, shop owners said. But the law has apparently stopped some vendors and shop owners from calling attention to the ways their products could be used with illegal drugs.
The law, called the Drug Paraphernalia Act of 1982, took effect Jan. 1. It bans the sale and possession of items that are specifically "designed or marketed" with intent for use with an illegal drug. Items outlawed include water pipes, carburetor pipes for smoking marijuana, roach clips, and miniature cocaine spoons for sniffing the drug.
The penalty for selling drug-related items is a maximum of six months' imprisonment and $1,000 in fines for a first offense and up to two years in prison and $5,000 in fines for a second offense. For those caught with identifiable drug paraphernalia, the penalty is a maximum of 30 days in jail and $100 in fines.
Many shop owners said they believe the law is vague and unenforceable. They also said they have not been given specific guidelines.
D.C. Police Inspector Kris Coligan, director of the department's Morals Division, said he believed the law would be effective, however. "Things are not going to vanish because of this law. What that law does is give law enforcers and society a tool that we surely need--some weapon to use against people who benefit, profit through drugs."
Nathaniel Speights, chief of law enforcement for the D.C. Corporation Counsel, said, "what will happen is that stores will stop promoting items for the use of drugs and illegal narcotics; that is what the intent of the law is."
Speights said other questions about the law must still be resolved. One of them, shop owners and others said, is what factors will be used to determine whether an item is intended for use with illegal drugs if it is not labeled for that purpose.
Tiny spoons, for example, have in the past decade been associated with cocaine use, although the spoons may be used for many purposes, including sniffing snuff, a finely powdered tobacco. Store owners said they may continue selling the spoons but will be careful not to identify them with cocaine.
Speights said: "I think that this is a very novel approach, but as a factual matter I don't think they can be successful using that as a loophole . . . because "manufacturers do not recommend snorting snuff."
Several shop owners said that despite the law they have not changed the merchandise they carry. Others said they have taken some items off shelves.
Howard Fain, owner of Headquarters, a shirt and tobacco shop at 4904 Wisconsin Ave. NW, said he has not seen guidelines on what kinds of merchandise can be sold. His shop sells water pipes, bongs (a form of pipe) and cigarette rolling papers. But he said all are for use with tobaccco and other legal herbs.
At Earthworks, a tobacco store at 1724 20th St. NW, owner L. Page (Deacon) Maccubbin said: "We will continue to sell bongs and water pipes for use with tobacco and other legal herbal smokes. Our tiny spoons and snorting tubes were 'designed' for snuff and will continue to be sold for that purpose."
Maccubbin said customers purchasing items at Earthworks, once called a pipes and paraphernalia shop and now a tobacco and pipe store, must sign a statement acknowledging that the items they buy are sold "for legal use only."
"If a customer comes into the shop and makes a reference to an illicit drug then we will ask that customer to leave," said Maccubbin. "Bongs, water pipes, rolling papers and snuff kits will remain on the shelves for the intended purpose of tobacco use only."
Maccubbin said some of Earthworks' glass cabinets are empty, not because items were removed because of the new law but because sales were so high that he has not had time to restock. Last week other store owners and at least one street vendor said there was a surge in sales, apparently because customers were uncertain about what they could buy after Jan. 1.
Although the law initially has not changed most of the products sold in some stores, it has shut down at least one business.
Kate and Sheldon Lawrence, vendors at Connecticut Avenue and K streets NW for several years, closed their business Dec. 31.
"Our lawyer tells us that we don't have to go out of business, that we can continue to sell on the streets," said Kate Sheldon. "That may be true, but we are closing down. We made that decision because we have had the most hassles.
"When you are on the streets and someone comes up to you and says 'I want to see a hash hashish pipe,' it is difficult to say, 'I don't sell hash pipes, and I cannot sell you anything, now get away from the table,' " she said.
Earlier in the year, before the City Council's final approval of the law, the Lawrences said they felt optimistic. "We did not believe that the law would pass," Sheldon said. The same day the law passed, the couple signed a lease on a store in Georgetown. But they have since decided against opening a business.