Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Free Crack Pipes? Time to Pardon Tommy Chong

Posted by M. C. on February 14, 2022

It would be far better for Biden to call an end to the disastrous federal drug war. But we are unlikely to see such courage or wisdom from a man who, during his decades in the Senate, was renowned for championing punitive crime bills to impose his favorite cure: “Lock the S.O.B.s up!”

by Jim Bovard

Conservative publications have accused the Biden administration of planning to distribute $30 million worth of free crack pipes and other paraphernalia as part of its effort to achieve “racial equity” among “underserved communities.” The original notice for federal grants included provisions to pay for “safe smoking kits/supplies” but the Biden administration insists that no federal funds will be specifically used to purchase crack pipes. But taxpayers will get screwed anyway thanks to federal distribution of free condoms under the same program.

While “harm reduction” is the stated goal of  that federal program, the Biden administration continues to ignore the vast harms caused by federal drug prohibitions, despite record numbers of deaths from drug overdoses last year.

The latest federal drug war farce should be a reminder of one of the biggest drug war publicity stunts of this century. On the eve of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the most decisive federal attack ever made on pipes and bowls often used for smoking marijuana, tobacco, and other substances. Ashcroft bewailed, “The illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge.” Ashcroft did not offer any evidence that pipe sellers, unlike government agents, were planting evidence in people’s homes.

Operation Pipe Dreams involved more than 1,200 federal agents conducting raids in Pennsylvania, Texas, Oregon, Iowa, California, and Idaho. Fifty-five people and 10 companies were indicted in the biggest attack on glass bowls in American history. The feds confiscated 124 tons of what was alleged to be drug paraphernalia, including plastic baggies that could potentially be used to package illicit drugs.

Ashcroft’s prosecutors used a rarely enforced 1980s laws that criminalized the sale of drug paraphernalia. Seizure fever permeated the bong attack. U.S. Deputy Marshal Dale Ortmann commented, “This was the biggest push in asset seizures that I’ve seen in eight years.” U.S. Deputy Marshal Gary Richards noted that, thanks to cash grabbed from businesses that were raided, “We have access to money that will pay for inventory and storage fees” for the 124 tons of goodies. Apparently, this was the only “boondoggle test” that Justice Department masterminds applied to this case.

The biggest catch of Operation Pipe Dreams was 64-year-old Tommy Chong, the older half of the legendary, Grammy Award-winning comic duo Cheech and Chong, who lampooned drug warriors from the 1960s to the 1980s. Their movie “Up in Smoke” was some of the best political-cultural humor of the 1970s. Chong’s company, Chong Glass, sold ornate bongs that cost hundreds of dollars over the Internet; a Los Angeles art gallery had an exhibit of Chong’s top-of-the-line products. The Drug Enforcement Administration set up a phony shop in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and ordered bongs and other material from Chong Glass and then nailed Chong for shipping paraphernalia across state lines.

The DEA hit Chong’s Pacific Palisades, California, house at 5:30 a.m., while Chong and his wife were asleep. Chong later commented, “It was a full-on raid. Helicopters, them bangin’ on the door. They come in with loaded automatic weapons, flak jackets, helmets, visors, about 20 agents. They bust in the house. They took all my cash, took out my computers, and they took all the glass bongs they could find.”

Chong’s arrest sparked ridicule far and wide, including barbs from both David Letterman and Jay Leno. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette snipped, “With the nation on Orange Alert at the time, the only bearded men most Americans wanted to see in custody were members of al-Qaida.” Though Chong controlled much less than 1 percent of the national bong market, busting him guaranteed the feds massive publicity.

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