THE RECENT federal court ruling upholding a Virginia drug paraphernalia law was a victory for the state's lawmakers.Many jurisdictions around the country have vainly tried to construct a legally acceptable ban on the "head shops" that sell the accoutrements of the drug culture -- the marijuana pipes, razors to dice cocaine and so forth. Such shops make their money selling the allure and false glamour of drugs, and any city or county would be better off without them, preying on impressionable youngsters as they do. The problem has been that any law enacted to prohibit the sale of a gold razor blade, meant for use with cocaine, can easily be used to harass someone carrying a plain old steel razor meant to shave a beard. How do you pass a law against pipes or razor blades?

Virginia's drug law is aimed at any device used for "inhaling, smoking or administering into the body illegal drugs." The idea was attacked as too vague by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws as well as the Virginia Tobacco Accessories Trade Association. The imprecision, they argued, opened the door for police harassment of innocent people and placed an unreasonable burden on a store-owner to determine what products in his store could be used to help ingest drugs. For example, the sale of tobacco rolling paper, which can also be used to roll marijuana cigarettes, could be illegal.

yHere is the distinction the court made: in upholding the Virginia ban on selling drug accessories, U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan said the "language of the statute focuses on the intent of the seller." He added that the marijuana papers or pipes "must be intended by the seller to be used as some form of drug paraphernalia before the sale becomes illegal." The judge's emphasis on intent, however, still leaves open the possibility of misuse of the law; intent can be very difficult to determine. State and county officials should make very sure that their enforcement does not amount to abuse and harassment of those innocently involved in the buying and selling of these ambiguous objects.