The vending machines began appearing in the Long Island suburb of Brookhaven without any explanation.
One showed up outside a landscaped apartment complex, next door to a mini-golf course, according to local news reports. Another turned up by a bus stop outside a strip mall that, in recent years, has featured Chinese and Jamaican restaurants, a Dominican hair salon and a storefront advertising “We buy gold.” The third was found near another shopping plaza at a busy intersection with a Home Depot, Family Dollar, Dunkin’ Donuts and Advance Auto Parts.
Each of the blue metal boxes was attached to the ground with concrete and had a metal slot that held $2 worth of quarters. “PENS,” one said. Others advertised “SKETCH PENS” or, even more ambiguously, “S PENS.”
But what they really contained were crack pipes.
Calls about the strange vending machines started coming into Brookhaven Town Hall last week, Councilman Michael Loguercio said at a Monday news conference. At first, it seemed like nothing more than a standard zoning violation.
“Many people had thought within the community that because it was the first week of school that perhaps they were actually selling pens,” he said.
When a local fire chief popped in eight quarters on Friday, though, what came out was not an ordinary pen. Several filter screens were stuffed inside. When the pen was disassembled, its glass tube could be used as a pipe, officials said at Monday’s news conference. In other words, it was a crack stem — some assembly required.
“You think you’ve heard of everything,” Ed Romaine, Brookhaven’s town supervisor, said while shaking his head. “I continue to be surprised by the audacity of those that would break the law in promoting drugs and drug paraphernalia.”
Town officials believe the machines were originally tampon dispensers and had been ripped out of public bathrooms, WMRA reports. Installing each one would have required digging an eight-inch hole and filling it with concrete.
“It’s a lot of work to do for a prank,” Loguercio said at Monday’s news conference.
So who was behind the audacious — and fairly laborious — scheme? How did they decide where to install the machines, and how did they avoid detection while doing so? How much money had they made before the vending machines were removed?
Those questions will be up to Suffolk County police to investigate, town officials said Monday. Police will also determine whether the individuals responsible will end up facing criminal charges rather than simply being fined for a zoning violation for installing the vending machines on public right-of-ways without the appropriate permits.
“Obviously, it’s not illegal to sell a pen,” Loguercio said. “However, this is considered drug paraphernalia.”
New York State Assemblyman Dean Murray, who represents Brookhaven, added, “I don’t remember ever buying a pen that came with a pack of filters, so I think it’s obvious what the use was intended for.”
Residents who figured out the vending machines’ real purpose were “outraged,” Brookhaven Public Safety Commissioner John Meehan said Monday.
An unidentified resident reportedly destroyed one of the machines with a sledgehammer before officials came and removed it, according to News 12 and Pix 11. Meehan didn’t confirm those precise details but said that his department has reason to believe that one vending machine was “destroyed or damaged by the community when they learned about it.”
Like other predominantly white, middle-class parts of Long Island, Brookhaven has been feeling the effects of the opioid epidemic in recent years. But other drugs have also been making their way into the community. In March, seven people were charged with distributing cocaine, crack and heroin in the Brookhaven area. Prosecutors say they were part of a multimillion-dollar drug operation that originated in the Bronx and was responsible for several overdose deaths in eastern Long Island.
“We’re focused on the heroin crisis, but crack is still around,” Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner said this week.
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