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U.S. News
Pittsburgh head shop crackdown leads to 55 U.S. arrests

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

By Curt Anderson, The Associated Press

Federal authorities charged 55 people with trafficking in illegal drug paraphernalia in an investigation that started in Pittsburgh and eventually targeted the nation's biggest Internet distributors of marijuana bongs, crack pipes and other drug abuse gear.

In coordinated raids yesterday, officials confiscated "thousands and thousands of tons" of paraphernalia from companies boasting up to $50 million in annual sales, said Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh whose office is leading the "Operation Pipe Dreams" investigation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"No one would possibly use these items for smoking tobacco," Buchanan said at a Justice Department news conference in Washington, D.C.

The charges were brought in federal grand jury indictments in Pittsburgh and Des Moines, Iowa, although the investigation stretches from Oregon and California to Texas, Michigan, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Most of those charged were accused of being involved in large-scale manufacturing and distribution of the gear, although there were some individual "head shops" targeted, mainly in Western Pennsylvania, Buchanan said.

Among those indicted were Tracie Lynn Zimmerman, 34, and Michael Anthony Deblasio, 24, both of North Huntingdon, doing business as Heads-n-Threads; Joyce J. Adamy, 27, and Christina A. Cummings, 28, both of Johnstown, doing business as Phantasm; Jodey P. Bayle, 48, and Inez M. Thompson, both of Erie, doing business as Pipe Emporium; Glen W. Beers, 29, of Clarion, doing business as G.W. Pipedreams; Randolph Przekop, 36, of Pittsburgh, doing business as Slacker Inc.; Richard Kevin Jaussen, 48, of Pittsburgh, doing business as Tela Ropa Inc.; and William A. Conover, 42, of Erie, doing business as B&M Variety.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the sale of drug paraphernalia has exploded on the Internet, making it easier for teenagers and young adults to buy it. The items often are disguised as such things as lipstick cases to escape detection and are marketed under code names and symbols.

"Quite simply, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge," Ashcroft said.

Organizations advocating the legalization of marijuana accused Ashcroft of grandstanding.

"At a time when the rest of the country is worried about terrorism, this attorney general is going after people who sell pipes," said Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Surely he has something better to do with his time."

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, suggested the busts were aimed at scoring political points.

"It would be more logical -- although I'm not suggesting this -- to prosecute people who sell beer mugs because of the poison consumed in them," he said.

The government was obtaining court orders to shut down 11 Internet sites that peddle the paraphernalia, with visitors to those Web sites redirected to a DEA site that cites the law against sale of such items.

According to a DEA affidavit, the case stemmed from an investigation of Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife, Rajeshwari, who owned two head shops in Downtown Pittsburgh, Novelties International at 130 Fifth Ave. and Hari's Karishma at 238 Forbes Ave.

After a trial in U.S. District Court here in 2000, Akhil Mishra was sentenced to two years in federal prison and his wife got five months.

During the investigation, DEA agents were able to identify numerous suppliers across the country who sold online and through catalogs.

The trail led them to Heads-n-Threads in North Huntingdon, whose owner agreed to cooperate and turned over additional records of online sales, Internet addresses and credit card information.

Those records, in turn, led them to Edward Ian Rothschild, 48, of Columbia, S.C., who according to the indictments is a national distributor.

Federal law makes it a crime to sell products mainly intended for the use of illegal drugs, including such things as bongs, marijuana pipes, "roach" clips, miniature spoons and scales. Those charged with selling and conspiring to sell such items face up to three years on prison, maximum fines of $250,000, and forfeiture of warehouses, machinery and other property.

Post-Gazette staff writer Torsten Ove contributed to this report.

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