At an Exxon station in Southeast Washington, behind a thick pane of protective glass, an attendant in a white Yankees cap peddles chips, cheap cigars and fake roses inside tiny glass tubes.
The little cloth flower looks like a novelty item, something a smitten teenager might buy his sweetheart. But the rose is a ruse, police say, a distraction to be thrown away. The real attraction is the four-inch-long tube that holds the flower. It's a thinly disguised crack pipe, law enforcement officials say.
Convenience stores, liquor stores and gas stations in crack-infested neighborhoods in the Washington area sell what the street calls "rosebuds" or "stems" for $1 to $2. For an extra $1 or so, a crack user can buy a golf-ball-size wad of scouring pad for a filter -- the "Chore Boy" or "Chore," named after an unlucky brand.
"I kind of laughed the first time I saw one," said Sgt. John Brennan of the D.C. police narcotics unit. "They're always trying to beat us. They're always thinking of new things."
And authorities and activists are always there to fight them: Anacostia residents, with the help of the Korean American Business Association, have launched a campaign to stop the sale of the rosebuds, and D.C. Council members introduced legislation yesterday to toughen the drug paraphernalia laws.
D.C. police say it is unclear whether the rosebuds are intended as harmless trinkets, but they say they have never seen them used as anything but crack pipes.
One panhandler in Southeast with a habit of up to $100 a day said he buys about four a month because the glass breaks easily, especially in the cold. On a well-lighted sidewalk, he demonstrated how to use the pipe filter, rolling a small ball of the scouring pad like cookie dough until it turned into a thin, two-inch-long roll that fit easily into the three-eighths-inch mouth of the pipe. The filter prevents the user from inhaling the rock of crack while smoking it.
The rosebuds, which carry no brand name, are made in China. Retailers buy them in bulk for about 10 cents each. Strictly speaking, they are legal because they can be seen as a novelty. But in many jurisdictions, including the District, store owners can be charged under paraphernalia laws if authorities can prove they knowingly sell them for drug use. Undercover officers in Germantown recently busted two store owners.
Many store owners keep them discreetly out of view yet maintain that they don't know how the rosebuds are used.
One overcast afternoon at the Exxon station, the attendant in the baseball cap sold a glass tube holding a two-inch-long pink rose -- then, unsolicited, offered up a piece of scouring pad.
Asked what customers do with the item, he said: "Different things. I don't comment on what people use them for."
Besides, he added, "everyone out here sells them."
That may be changing. Since the Anacostia campaign was launched in January, 20 stores have agreed to stop selling them, though it is unclear whether all have complied, said Gary Cha, president of the Korean Business Association. He said three-quarters of the retailers knew what the rosebuds were used for, and he had to fill in the others.
The citizen campaign is also targeting cigarette rolling papers and cheap cigars known as "blunts" that customers hollow out and fill with marijuana.
"We don't need this type of stuff being sold in the community," said Lendia Johnson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who was among about 100 people who attended the meeting where the campaign was started. "It's not setting a good example for the children. Some of them know from their own family what these things are."
Although the rosebuds are sold in all four quadrants of the District, the Anacostia campaign, led by community activist Phil Pannell, is the only organized effort against them, and members hope their campaign spreads.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was videotaped smoking crack while mayor in 1990, spoke out at the meeting as a backer of the anti-paraphernalia effort.
"I support absolutely taking this stuff off the shelf, 100 percent," said Barry, who also tested positive for cocaine several months ago. "You know I've had my problems. But that doesn't have anything to do with my attitude about it."
To add muscle to their campaign, residents have challenged the liquor licenses of 19 stores in Anacostia on the grounds that they knowingly sell drug paraphernalia, a factor the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board can consider during the license renewal process.
At a follow-up community meeting last week, officials from a city agency drew up a voluntary agreement: If stores stopped selling rosebuds and other paraphernalia, residents would not challenge their liquor license renewal.
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb went even further, urging the crowd to consider boycotting stores. "Shame on us if we continue to do business with these markets," he said.
The bustling Shipley Market, tucked into a worn strip mall on Savannah Road SE, is among the stores that have stopped selling the rosebuds.
"I feel better, because we're complying with what the community wants," said co-owner Harrison Om.
He conceded that the community's challenge of his liquor license was an added incentive. "When they target a liquor license, that's scary," Om said, standing near stacks of beer cases and coolers.
Om said he began buying the pipes about two years ago from a traveling salesman who peddled everything from T-shirts to lighters. He bought one case at a time, or 576 pipes, and sold about 20 a day for $1 each.
"At first, we didn't know what it was," he said. "Eventually, we figured it out."
Some buyers, who appeared to be upstanding citizens, surprised him.
Feeling guilty-- and hearing rumors that a store had been busted -- Om said he moved the rosebuds under the counter. Still, customers knew which stores sold them.
For several weeks after he tossed out the rosebuds, Om said, about 10 customers a day asked for them.
He has few illusions that his new policy will dampen addicts' appetites. "They're still getting it," he said. "It doesn't stop."