As the city considered a drug paraphernalia law last year, Deacon McCubbin, owner of what was then one of the largest "head shops" in the area, saw the writing on the wall and began changing his wares.

Today, six months after the law went into effect, McCubbin's Earthworks store at 20th and R streets NW is doing a brisk business. As a tobacco shop, stocking more than 150 brands of imported cigarettes, pipe tobacco, a variety of "legitimate" smoking pipes and offering a high class snuff bar.

McCubbin, 40, is typical of most of the city's 20 or so head shop owners who have complied voluntarily with the act, which makes it illegal to sell items designed for drug use, such as water pipes, roach clips and cocaine spoons.

But some vendors have decided to fight rather than switch and to use the language of the law that specifies that an item must be intended for drug use as a way to continue selling the banned goods.

At one store on M Street in Georgetown, which sells records, a back room table carries a full line of cocaine "free base" pipes, hash pipes and other paraphernalia.

The owners say these are "collectors' items" and warn customers that the items are not intended for narcotics use.

McCubbin, who has owned Earthworks since it opened as a crafts shop 12 years ago, sympathized with the rebellious vendors, saying a lucrative and innocuous business is being wiped out by a law that is too vague and poorly focused.

He insists that head shops not only provided safe substances for "cutting" drugs (diluting them), they also provided handbooks and test kits that kept people from taking "bad drugs."

"Our products cut down on unwitting drug abuse," McCubbin insists. "You could get a test kit for marijuana and determine if there was PCP (phencyclidine) in it. There were test kits to determine what was in cocaine other than cocaine. We carried a line of 'safe coke cuts,' but now people are going back to using borax."

McCubbin contends the recent increase in cocaine emergency room admissions and the increase in incidents of PCP abuse are related to the inability of customers to buy quality products.

He cited a juvenile justice system study that showed 67 percent of the offenders tested for drugs showed signs of PCP use, although the vast majority of them claimed never to have smoked the drug.

With the test kit, he said, they would know what they were smoking.

"We have to make a difference between drug use and drug abuse, and information is the only way to prevent drug abuse," said McCubbin who was a member of the Mayor's Drug Task Force and is a member of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

"We used to have information that helped people deal with drugs in a responsible way, but this information is no longer available," he said.

But such arguments have not been convincing here or in area jurisdictions where legalized paraphernalia is seen as tacit approval of drug use and where possession of exotic paraphernalia, whether bought in stores or assembled from scratch, is believed to stimulate drug use.

McCubbin says he decided after many legal fights against the act that it just wasn't worth it and sold out his stock last December. The day before the law went into effect was the biggest volume day since his store opened, he said.

Courts in several states have upheld the constitutionality of the law, but only two cases stemming from purchases and sales have been made in Washington during the last six months. Both are still pending in the beleaguered D.C. Superior Court system.

Meanwhile, D.C. police narcotics detective John Beuerelan said police will continue to "act like a watchdog more or less" to monitor compliance with the law.

Clearly it will take more than drug paraphernalia laws and drug raids to cure the ills of drug abuse in the city. But the paraphernalia dealers who continue to sell their wares would do the city a favor by clearing their shelves and restocking them with more socially acceptable items.

Perhaps their customers, like McCubbin's, will one day change their brand of smoke.