Head Shop Raids Are Unconscionable

Raids On Head Shops Unjust And Unfair
By Norm Kent, Esq., NORML Board Member*

“Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed. They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed. Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain. But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game. And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody.
Outside of a small circle of friends.”

–song by Phil Ochs
Duval Street is the epicenter of Key West, home to Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s and a host of bars and hotels which have for a century captured the spark and soul of this land of the lost.
The Environmental Circus is gone, Valladares’ News Stand is history, and though La Te Da still stands, Larry Formica and his pink Cadillac have long since passed. Where a beat up wooden dock and a collage of cultures once gathered on historic Mallory Square, cruise ships now pour out thousands of tourists in flowered shirts onto the city’s main streets.
Fantasy Fest still wreaks havoc to the city every fall, but the Pirate image of this out of the way city has been lost for a long time now, to t shirt shops and condos; to name hotels and tourist traps. The heart of the city, Duval Street, has seen some of its landmarks become chain pharmacies, and cheap coffee shops like Shorty’s and Dennis Pharmacy have become convenience stores.
Walking down Duval Street in 2008 you are more likely to find a foreign exchange student from Slovakia peddling a bike for extra cash than you are to stumble upon a runaway teen from New York hustling a street corner for change. The times they are no longer changing. The times they have changed.
The temperature on October 17, 2008 in Key West was its typical and tropical 75 degrees. Ladies were sunning themselves bare-breasted at the Pier House’s private beach. Fishermen were working the pier, vacationers on mopeds criss-crossed the narrow streets, and more than one drunk stumbled down an alleyway. After all, it is still Key West.
But the heat on Duval Street was about to get hotter.
The shops on Duval Street opened their doors as usual, with no threats of a hurricane brewing. Merchants, if anything, were readying themselves for the annual, sin-filled festival of self-ordained decadence, Key West Fantasy Fest. On that date, many of them, head shops, were selling rolling papers, glass pipes, bongs, and other products designed to enhance the “right of happiness,” a constitutional right not too often protected by our courts.
The stores had signs all over them saying the products are for ‘legal and tobacco use only.’ But this distressed the new mayor, concerned that his little town was sending the wrong message: “You know that you don’t really smoke tobacco out of those things.” He sounded like Sarah Palin telling us how you could see Russia ‘from my house here in Alaska.’
The misguided mayor of this island city disapproved of the displays and set to do something about it. So he called the feds. You see, under broad Florida state laws, those pipes are legal. Not so under federal law. Understandably, this confuses the average citizen. Heck, it confuses lawyers too.
Title 21, Chapter 13 of federal law states: “Drug paraphernalia means any equipment, product or material of any kind which is primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance …”
Supported by the local district attorney, the Mayor found his answer. On this quiet morning in October, federal authorities from 16 different agencies, aided by local and state operatives, converged on Duval Street and the neighboring streets where head shops dispensed their products lawfully, or so they thought.
Store by store, law enforcement entered with badges and guns, uniforms and crates- that’s right, crates- to cart away and confiscate the inventory of these stores to the waiting Budget U Haul Rent-a-Truck conspicuously parked in the center of the street.
Systematically, the feds sucked up any items they deemed as contraband that they say could be used to violate Title 21. The items taken then were rolling papers, lighters, ash trays, bongs, catalogues, pipes, and anything they say could potentially be used to violate the law. There was no order or determination of probable cause by a jurist, no ruling by a court that the items were illegal, just law enforcement officers with cartons and guns.
Furthering their operation, these officers then seized all the financial records of the stores, including their receipts and credit card purchases. That means if you have visited Key West lately and you purchased one of those glass pipes, the Feds now know where you live too. Your credit card number is now sitting in a federal database as a drug paraphernalia consumer. No, there was no judicial hearing on that either.
As a matter of fact, no one was charged with a crime, but the feds carted off 11,920 items defined as drug paraphernalia under the federal law, with an estimated value of three quarters of one million dollars. Not a bad haul for one sleepy, sunny morning in Key West.
Since the raids, at least two stores have summarily closed their doors, their inventory entirely depleted. Said Abby Frew, the owner of a shop called Energy: “The financial loss was too great. Stay open? I don’t think so. They took all my stuff.”
“I wanted to clean up the city’s image,” said Mayor Morgan McPherson. “I did not like what I saw in the windows of all those stores.” He added that if the business people don’t like it, they “call their congressman.”
He cleaned it up all right. Aided by a complicit federal government following their own set of laws, he kicked the businesses out without due process of law. He disgraced its community, screwed its businessman, and advanced a disgusting partisan personal political agenda. In the old Key West, he would have been recalled and reviled. In the new Key West, he becomes a hero.
An enlightened mayor might have called the chamber of commerce or invited a community discussion to discuss alternatives. The mayor might have used code enforcement and local ordinances to mandate zoning changes. Instead, he called and asked the Feds to do what city cops were not allowed to do.
Moti Elfasi, an Israeli by birth, is one of those businessmen whose inventory was seized. Having lived in Key West for a decade, he loves the atmosphere and the community of the island. But his head is spinning over what happened to him.
Here is what he told local reporters: “I don’t understand America. They gave me a license in Key West. I paid my taxes. I obeyed the law. Florida said it was okay to sell the things. But now people from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration come in and take everything away from me without even a notice to remove it first.”
It’s more than that, Moti. You detrimentally relied upon the representations of Key West city representatives that you could lawfully do what you were doing. Day by day, hour by hour, Key West city police patrolled your business, and no one told you that you could not do what you were doing. You have been operating openly and legally for years. You paid your taxes. You had an occupational license. You employed your neighbors. Now you got screwed.
Key West is not the first city to deal with this conflict between state and federal laws, nor will it be the last. California is of course the epicenter of this cosmos of confusion, with the feds neither recognizing medical dispensaries nor Prop 215. Just last week, our government pushed the envelope even further, raiding head shops in San Diego.
Across this country, over the past few years, other shops across this country have been systematically and surreptitiously raided, and their products also seized. Meanwhile, pipes and paraphernalia are now being marketed nationally, expanding rapidly in convenience stores from coast to coast. Find one repressive right wing mayor in the right town with the wrong agenda and you could conceivably become the target. Ask Tommy Chong. It’s still happening on a wider scale.
What happens to the products which are seized?
Agents quietly warn the businessmen to suck up the forfeiture and not challenge it in court. The advisory goes something like this: “Most likely we will just destroy this stuff as contraband, but if you attempt to challenge it, well there is no saying we won’t come back and arrest you.” Facing a not-so-veiled threat of criminal prosecution, the stores live with the bankruptcies, seizures, and loss of their products. The feds say they will “destroy the contraband.” More likely, some of them will use it at their bachelor parties.
These raids may deprive stores of their inventory, but our government abandons fundamental principles. Our citizens lose their rights. Lawyers are denied the opportunity to meaningfully contest the seizures. One more chink is carved into the heart of liberty.
If the past stays true to form, these unconscionable seizures will not make the national news. Politicians are too complacent, the drug law reform movement is too weak, and the massive pot smoking public is too disorganized, probably more concerned about getting high on those products designed for legal purposes only.
As for those merchants, outside of a small circle of their friends, no one cares.
*Orginally published December 28, 2008 at http://www.kentvent.blogspot.com/

0 thoughts

  1. thats exactly why we seem to be getting no where in this fight. “the massive pot smoking public is too disorganized, probably more concerned about getting high on those products designed for legal purposes only” we need to get organized and be more concerned of our fellow citizens not just ourselves and our next satchel. but that just wouldnt be america if you werent looking out for number 1 now would it?

  2. as i read this i cant help but think that while the raids were going on, the mayor is sitting in his car watching this acting like Mr. Burns. and on top of that, how likely would it be that if they went the proper way of doing this with all the papers and head honchos saying “yes, lets raids these people even tho we all know its wrong, just cause we can” shit like this really upsets me and wonders if my local head shop is next.

  3. I am absolutely disgusted with this news. It makes me sick thinking of the selfish tactics these law enforcement officers and feds use to “uphold the law”. Absolutely no morals at all. I’d consider a warning to the head shops fair at least… then they could prepare themselves… but instead the government chooses to screw over working citizens. We need reform now!! Crossing my fingers with Obama…

  4. i lived there from 2000-2001 and can honestly and personaly say the main tourist attraction next to souviners is GANJA!
    It is the carribean vibe, they get off the cruise ships get some herb and soke it up before the ship departs the island!

  5. How many taxpayer dollars were spent on this operation? SIXTEEN federal agencies involved in this? Even people who dont care about individual rights and even people who dont care about cannabis users should all care about the TAXPAYER DOLLARS which these political hacks keep burning in order to advance their agendas of oppression and puritanical personal morality. Where is the mainstream media, and why are they laying down on this? As the saying goes, enough is enough. We have to make more noise and raise the level of public outrage.

  6. So how do we organize enough people together to make a change? This so called free society we live in has been bound by its shackles of ignorance. How do we get past that?

  7. Just because it’s a law does not mean it should be and just because it’s not a law does not mean it should not be! Wake up and THINK people!

  8. I agree with you Jeremy. Even when Obama takes office I believe we will see very little change. Our voice is not loud enough to garner the right level of politcal pressure. I appreciate the work the folks at NORML, MPP, and others are doing, but we as a collective are not doing enough to make ourselves heard and understood. I am frustrated because I don’t how to go about particpating in a movement in such a way that I can directly make an impact.

  9. Guess the feds are going to start taking everything… I mean really what can’t you make a bong or pipe out of?

  10. WOW……. he said it all………. that makes me sick we all need to read that last paragraph again… we need to get orginized… stage an event

  11. What’s next? Are they going to start raiding tobacco shops and confiscating all pipes, rolling papers, and cigarette rollers. What about hardware stores where anyone with a creative mind can buy whatever they need to build their own paraphenalia? How about grocery stores? They sell mayo in jars that are easily made into water bongs. Oh, and let’s not forget all corn cobs. They can be made into pipes too. And the Native American peace pipes! Where will the insanity stop?
    Hey Congress! Here’s your sign. You cannot win any war against “paraphenalia”.

  12. I came across this idea..
    The People Should Shape The Government, The Government Shouldn’t Shape The People..

  13. we organize by having rallies, marching in the streets, picketing government buildings. Gathering peacefully as is our right under the constitution, showing the lawmakers how many supporters and registered voters are really out there. We organize by letter writing campaigns to congress and the senate, believe it or not we might actually find some supporters there. We organize by voting the questions pertaining to our agenda on Change.gov to number one by a margine that can’t be ignored. We speak out! We get to know each other, we connect and we get our word out there. People who support this issue that have the funds, by advertising space and donate it to NOMRL or come up with your own pro-cannabis ad! Hell, the buses here in Washington rent out the space so I’m pretty sure that mass transit in other cities do the same. We continue what we’re doing and we don’t stop. It’s that simple, get to know your fellow supporters and from there put things together that bring attention to the issues.

  14. Marijuana laws in general don’t make sense. But this is just ridiculous. I watched the special on Showtime about Tommy Chong’s encounter with the feds and they made it look like they were arresting Paublo Escobar instead of a peaceful comedian. How the hell can I possibly trust the government? I can honestly say I’m scared to be a pothead. I follow laws, I work, go to college, pay taxes, and I smoke weed. According to the government that makes me a criminal. It’s a sad turn of events for the pot culture indeed.

  15. I am glad they did this act. Every time the feds do this, they create more opposition to their cause. The drug war will only end when we demand it end. The tide is turning that direction now. In fact, I think the best thing for the legalization of marijuana would be for Obama to slight we marijuana smokers again. And by we, I mean everyone in the world. For it is this country that must change first. Peace, Jim

  16. “the massive pot smoking public is too disorganized”
    I have a few words to say to that. Yes, we are extremely unorganized. But for all pot smokers to unite and such to fight for legalization would be like trying to get every person who hates high gas prices to fight against high gas prices. It’s simply impossible. It’s not that we, the cannabis consumers, do not care; it’s that we have no real outlet for change. Organizations like NORML simply aren’t enough to change things at the national level, and I’d argue even the state level. And our politicians don’t care. Not with all the other shit that’s taking precedence in Congress right now. The general public still looks at cannabis as a drug, and a destructive one at that. The issue is so complex that it simply couldn’t be explained in a quick newsflash. While I do not understand why the media has been ignoring huge drug war “Skirmishes” such as this sad tale, I can definitely tell you that they would give it a positive slant (‘Feds Clean Up Tourist Hotspot’) rather than a critical one. Just like all the national news blurbs about A-dam “cleaning it’s streets” by closing down coffee shops and such. It’s going to take positive national exposure on a near daily level to eventually persuade our countrymen that cannabis users fit no stereotype, are (for the most part) good, otherwise law-abiding citizens, and that we just wanna live our life to the fullest the way we want to. Bondage sex is legal. Drinking til your liver eats itself is legal. Smoking cigarettes til your lungs are blacker than oil is legal. But smoking something that makes you see life in a whole new light, enables you to enjoy the subtleties of life, and is more benign than nearly anything you’d find on the shelves at a pharmacy- that’s downright illegal. Hypocrisy at it’s best. People fear what they do not understand and they clearly do not understand this wonderful plant that the god our politicians so often cling to has put on this planet for us to use and consume. I like the fact that movies and TV shows have recently shown cannabis in a positive light (like how Beer was declared the root of all evil over Pot on the show “root of all evil”). Don’t worry freedom fighters, all those old pissy politicians have gotta die sooner or later.. in the mean time let’s work on getting Ron Paul in in 2012, eh? Don’t say “oh no he’ll never get elected”. with that attitude, you’re right he won’t. But if you can persuade enough people to vote for him, and they persuade enough people then it snowballs. Til then let’s see how Obama handles this whole situation..

  17. i’ve been 2 key west twice my wife talked me into it so i took her for her birthday in oct. 2007 and just missed fantasy fest so we decided to go for her her b-day next year so we went down there and just like the 2 times we went before we planed on getting a new piece and using it down there just as we have done before and i can tell you the one place we found that had some the guy took us around back in the alley and pulled a box out of his car and showed us what he had but we couldn’t afford a $100 pipe we can get for $25 at home and it’s felt like a hardcore drug deal all of the people that work at these places had no idea that it was there new mayor they had trusted so much to help the city and treat it’s people fairly so i think situations like this one is just wrong and as my Vietnam Vet find tells me we should have the right to happiness and freedom because that is what this country was founded on back then people hated being oppressed so they fought back against there leaders so the people in this country could have their individual freedoms and no taxation i understand taxes and some rules are ok but we have a unjust system that we fight everyday to survive that is lead not by our elected people they are just pawns being paid off by the big companys with all the money that could easily get our country out off debt and save our starving people but they just want the money i say fight the power and let it be as it’s supposed 2 be and let the people run the country not just the rich and the people and act as puppets in closing we must all stand together for our rights and freedoms and if not just keep hiding like we are and let them slowly pick us off

  18. The Florida Keys in general have “moved on”. Living here in Key Largo, I can say that you hit the nail on the head with this piece. The “feel” down here is just not what it used to be. Not to mention Florida’s rancid Cannabis laws!

  19. Come on people. The reason you don’t hear the media broadcasting these stores is the FCC would shut them down. The goverment is in control of every thing we hear. The only thing you will hear in the media is what the goverment wants you to hear. So they can shape the thinking of the drons that march to their drum beat. Hello!

  20. This story makes me ill.
    If these were gunshops, the NRA would be all over this!!!
    In my oppinion, we (NORML) could learn a lot from the NRA.

  21. Hello Jimmy D,
    Thanks for your post!
    >If these were gunshops, the NRA would be all over this!!!
    >In my oppinion, we (NORML) could learn a lot from the NRA.
    Point well taken, however, unlike gun ownership and the necessary commerce therein, which are clearly protected under the Constitution’s Second Amendment, accessing drug paraphernalia enjoys no such legal protections.
    However, in my view, recent head shop raids in southern California, around San Diego, might test the constitutionality of municipalities’ so-called anti-paraphernalia ordinances because under the state’s pro-medical cannabis laws (Prop. 215 and SB 420), medical patients who have the right to use cannabis presumably have the right to purchase the medical delivery devices (so-called paraphernalia) necessary to deliver the medicine for self-titration.
    Thanks again,

  22. I see this as something that should not be tolerated by anyone. I’m sure Federal agents will do things like this even beyond Head shops. If people show that they won’t take this, this could even affect the bogus Homeland Security agents who detain people with no warrants or legal papers. I say we challenge them to follow at least some of the laws passed in this country. Allowing them to charge into any place they deem suspicious or illegal (usually on nothing but a phone call) robs us of freedoms we deserve for doing nothing but living our life lawfully, aside from the toking ;D

  23. Next, they should shut down all the “Square Grouper” restaurants in S. Fla, since it’s a marijuana reference. When a fisherman found a package of marijuana floating in the ocean, it was known locally as finding a “square grouper.” Whether our politicians like it or not, pot is a part of our culture that will never go away.

  24. we need to all come together and the nation needs to start rioting on one set date and start destroying the pharmacies and any other stores that sell the governments drugs and show that we want equal rights, if tylenol has more potential lethality than marijuana then we need to take it off the streets and prove that we mean business and were not gonna lay on the ground and let them walk all over us just because they have shiny little badges we got guns too…lets start using our rights like the government uses theirs

  25. This mayor needs his ass beaten by all the store owners, then his house ran sacked by them , his car totaled , and make sure he has a life long remembrance every time he looks in the mirror, knock out his front teeth.

  26. In a world got mad shouldn’t the government have something better to do? I have an online head shop SunflowerPipes.com. I sell my products like glass pipes and glass bubblers to regular citizens above the age of 18. I like what I do and I want to be left free to make an honest living. I have been this business for a few years in that time I have had many occasions were I was harassed by various law enforcement agencies. In a country with huge populations of inmates, homeless and poverty stricken people perhaps it is about time we learn to respect each others personal choices.

  27. When is the injustice going to stop. When are people gonna wake up and take back the powers they gave away to mayors like this? He should be tied to a donkey and hauled out town for betraying the peoples trust. Just because “he” didnt like it? WTF??

  28. our country is soo fucked idc if any high ranking offical sees this yeah i smoke pot yeah soo does the rest of the fucking world oo yeah even those assholes that raid these places smoke pot.. i had a cop raid a party took my bong and weed and then just leave sounds funny huh…. and the best part is this isnt even about “pot/weed/marijuana” its about all these big business men who are afraid to let prohibition go and loose the “battle over drugs” listen all you old fucking republicans let it go we are supposed to have freedom not be told what we want to do

  29. hmm, I love smoking weed, but I do unsterstand that the mayor did this will good intentions. I am currently visiting in Europe right now and I was trying to find some smoke shops listed online in areas that I had been visiting when I came across an article that the equivelant of a Mayor had written. It talked about how a smoke shop came into this rather small European town and quickly violence began. Infact, someone even made a pipe bomb. All of what I’m saying shows no corralation to the smoke shop, but the article made it quite clear. I really do enjoy smoking Marijuana but it really is hard to deny that there is a rather large criminal side to it. Then again, Australia decriminilized quite a few things and as a result the crime of it all was depleted, then again the States is not the Down Under. I also hate it when people try and justify Marijuana by saying cigarettes and alcohol are lega, why should Marijuana? bad arguement really, “the 9mm is lega, why isn’t the fully automatic Dragunov?”
    well, that’s my thoughts.

  30. and guy above me, the old-style republicans seem to be the good ones, it’s the new age ones that are bad, so please, get your shit straight before you rag on things. and you must admit, it does seem like you are following the crowd to say that republicans suck ass no matter what. I mean, do you think an entirely democratic based government would really work in a country this big with this many money issues? well, if you do, I’d like to smoke whatever you are smoking, because that’s a rediculous idea.

  31. now I feel bad that I even sad anything here, I feel that I will simply be flamed by people who are full of pro-weed ignorance who do not consider WHAT IS in this world. It is a little hard to deny the crimes and murders that have been committed regardless of the prohibition of Marijuana. I mean, really?

  32. And all this comes from a witness of the last dispensary to be shut down in America, the one located in Morro Bay, California. and the thing is, some of his employees were selling it illegally to others, so…what is that about?

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