Shops in Durango get break with lax pot enforcement
With the proliferation of medical marijuana centers across Colorado, local drug-enforcement officials have adjusted their attitude when it comes to policing smoke shops that sell drug paraphernalia.
No longer are authorities concerned about supplies used for smoking marijuana. Nor are they overly concerned about scales, stash cans or little baggies commonly used to package cocaine and methamphetamine, said Pat Downs, director of the Southwest Drug Task Force.
"Nowadays, with the advent of the medical marijuana laws, that changes things a little bit because, technically, if you have a medical marijuana license, you can smoke marijuana in the privacy of your home, and you have the ability to have the paraphernalia to do that," Downs said. "It's not as much drug paraphernalia as it used to be."
That wasn't the case five years ago when the Task Force obtained a warrant to raid Still Smokin, a head shop on north Main Avenue.
Authorities seized hundreds of water pipes for smoking marijuana and thousands of metallic, ceramic and glass pipes for smoking weed. They also collected hundreds of glass pipes for smoking methamphetamine or crack cocaine; thousands of small bags commonly used to package methamphetamine or cocaine; different types of scales and weighing devices; urinalysis test kits; detoxification supplies; and stash cans disguised as soda cans.
The owner, James Bender, pleaded guilty to one count of selling drug paraphernalia and was sentenced to 10 days on electronic home monitoring. Efforts to reach Bender for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
But his attorney, Arrlon Stoker of Farmington, said the bust was a sham then and wouldn't have any legal merit today with the legalization of medical marijuana.
"My thoughts were, don't you have something better to do?" Stoker said of the 2005 bust.
And as for now, he said: "How would you ever be able to discern who is buying it for a legalized medical purpose as compared to another purpose?"
The bust occurred before the Obama administration announced in October 2009 that federal prosecutions of medical marijuana would be discouraged.
Now Durango boasts three smoke shops that sell much of the same merchandise as Still Smokin, including scales, glass pipes, detoxification kits and the little baggies commonly used to keep drugs.
Two of the shops - Wild Side Gifts, 2151 Main Ave., and Gandolf's, 2165 Main Ave. - are within two blocks of Durango High School. The third, the Downtown Smoke Shop, is in the Central Business District at 1101 Main Ave.
All three store owners said they don't sell to minors. And all three said they prohibit customers from talking about drugs or using slang words such as "bong," which describes a water pipe used to smoke pot. Head shops have maintained this policy for years, believing that if customers refer to the merchandise by tobacco names, no legal trouble can befall them.
Downs said it doesn't matter what customers call the merchandise; either way, a case can be made that the stores are selling drug paraphernalia. But again, the Task Force has other priorities.
"We work on other things than drug paraphernalia," Downs said.
It would be hypocritical for law enforcement to shut down paraphernalia stores while medical marijuana centers are allowed to sell many of the same supplies, said Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, or HIDTA, which divvies out federal funds to drug task forces in a four-state region.
If smoke shops are catering to meth users, they should be dealt with, said 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg. Otherwise, they should be left alone.
"(The Drug Task Force) has more important things to do," Risberg said. "If it's a legal business, we don't have a problem with it."
The merchandise sold in smoke shops have legitimate uses, but when it's used for illegal activity is when a problem arises, said Durango police Capt. Micki Browning. And the problem doesn't arise with the smoke shop; rather it is with the individual who engaged in the illegal activity, she said.
"They've been properly permitted, and they are retail establishments, and we treat them just like any other retail establishment," Browning said.
"The retail establishment will tell you there's a legitimate use for each and every one of those items," she added.
The Downtown Smoke Shop, which opened eight months ago, carries glass pipes, water pipes, hookahs, scales, vaporizers, stash cans, little baggies and gas-mask bongs - cheap gas masks with a water pipe attached. The store claims to have the lowest prices in town.
Owner Mohammad Assi said many of his customers have medical marijuana cards, and about 60 percent are 50 or older.
His family operates smoke shops in Chicago, California, New Mexico and Cortez.
"Here in Colorado, to be honest with you, it's easy to get a card," Assi said. "A lot of people have the medical marijuana card."
Assi smokes four packs of cigarettes a day, but he's never tried marijuana, he said. He's been smoking a hookah since age 11.
He doesn't sell merchandise used to consume crack and meth, he said.
"I don't want to make money to hurt people," he said.
Gandolf's prides itself on buying glass and tie-dye clothing from local artists. It sells glass pipes, water pipes, detoxification kits and bags that conceal the smell of herbs. It doesn't sell tobacco.
When Gandolf's opened 1Â½ years ago, the "tobacco" section occupied 5 percent to 10 percent of the store, said owner Kristine Rhodes. Now the glass-pipe section occupies more than half the store.
"This is what the public wants," Rhodes said. "There must be a need, or there wouldn't be three glass shops in town."
She said 80 percent of her glassware is made locally.
"I want to have an upstanding store that is good for the community, that helps the community," Rhodes said.
She was pleased to hear local drug-enforcement officials aren't overly concerned about smoke shops.
"I was kind of concerned when we first opened," Rhodes said. "I tried to keep a pretty low profile. But now, all is well. I feel kind of blessed, relieved that they don't come in and bother us in any way."
Randy Saylors, president of Wild Side Gifts, insists on his customers using tobacco references when inside the store. That may change over time as medical marijuana becomes more acceptable, but for now, he wants to play it safe.
"It's sort of a gray area right now," Saylors said. "If a guy has a medical marijuana card, I'm not as concerned about it, but at the same time, I can't turn it all around."
Downs, the task force director, said his agency still monitors the smoke shops and will investigate complaints made against them - for example, customers smoking weed in the parking lot or drugs being sold on location.
It is well understood that the little 1-inch-by-1-inch baggies are used to distribute crack and meth, but with a medical marijuana law on the books, it is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the bags aren't being used to distribute medical marijuana, he said.
"We believe we know what they're being used for, but having a successful prosecution for that is unlikely," Downs said.
"Things are changing, and I guess we just have to see what the next step is as far as the medical marijuana laws go," he said.
Nice to see that the law really *do have more important things to do here.
by Shane Benjamin
Herald Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010