January 9, 2009


Hiding In Plain Sight

Supplies for a bad drug habit are as near as your corner store

By Congressman Bob Filner

Over the past few years, a silent but dangerous threat to our children and communities has crept into neighborhood markets and shopping centers in alarming numbers: Businesses that sell illegal drug paraphernalia.

Call it benign neglect on the part of city planners or chalk it up to the “live and let live” philosophy that governs Southern California attitudes, but the result is that buying marijuana bongs and methamphetamine pipes is now as simple as walking into your corner market.

Whether you call them smoke shops or head shops – these labels are mostly interchangeable – the reality is that most of these quirky stores have very little to do with selling tobacco and a lot to do with nurturing addiction.

For years they have been tucked away and mostly out of sight in seedy, inaccessible corners of our communities, making them easy for anyone uninterested in their wares to ignore.

Until recently, the relatively low numbers of these stores helped them dodge the attention of the county’s busy prosecutors – despite the fact that much of what they sell is clearly identified as illegal under California Health and Safety Code.

The products don’t have to be laced with drug residue to be illegal. They simply are illegal, and no amount of mislabeling should convince anyone that these products are intended for tobacco or burning incense.

Now, all across San Diego County, residents have been documenting the proliferation of head shops littering our communities and we can no longer ignore this problem or the law.

The community-based group Health Advocates Rejecting Marijuana, or HARM, has documented a 40-percent increase in head shops countywide since its monitoring project began in January 2006 and identified 63 stores. The number is now 94 and will only grow larger unless law enforcement, city leaders, and communities come together to push them back.

This needs to be an active, ongoing process involving both community monitoring and law enforcement to reverse the idea that selling drugs and abusing drugs is a normal, harmless activity in San Diego County. From Vista to Imperial Beach, we have seen law enforcement agencies banding together over the past several months to crack down on drug paraphernalia sales. Residents all over the county have shown support for this enforcement in community rallies, petitions and letters to the editor.

This effort is especially important when we consider our young people.

When drug paraphernalia is sold in stores located next door to dry cleaners, grocery stores and surf shops, kids receive a dangerous message: The community is not serious about preventing drug abuse.

This fall, teens surveyed in local treatment programs reported that it is easy to buy drug paraphernalia and that they think drug paraphernalia is legal because it is sold in retail outlets.

And they’re using it!

In 2007, 46 percent of all juveniles arrested in San Diego County tested positively for at least one drug, with marijuana being the most common, according a report from the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG.

Head shops aren’t the only problem businesses in our neighborhoods. The drug paraphernalia trade has started co-opting legitimate retailers such as news stands and liquor stores, cell phone retailers and 99-Cent stores. Glass meth pipes are commonly sold as scented “oil burners,” though it’s not clear how anyone would burn oil in an object so clearly ill-suited for that purpose.

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of concerned constituents, I took the opportunity to tour two stores in National City known for selling drug paraphernalia. My staff and I were surprised to find these stores openly selling items to prepare marijuana for smoking, bongs, drug-stash cans, and urine kits designed to help shoppers pass drug tests.

While clerks in both stores told me their merchandise was for tobacco, their marketing and displays suggested otherwise.

For example, one display case filled with bongs included a note stating the exact language shoppers should use during the purchase. When was the last time you walked into a legitimate business and required written instructions on language to use to avoid legal trouble?

Is this really the kind of corner store we want in our neighborhoods?

Clearly, it is not enough to just educate kids about the dangers of drug abuse – we have to create an environment that doesn’t condone or passively accept drugs. We owe them that.

The solutions are simple and straightforward:

1) Law enforcement must investigate and cite any complaints of drug paraphernalia sales in any retail outlet.

2) District and city attorneys must prosecute violators.

3) Local governments must prevent shops from receiving a business license – and be prepared to revoke licenses of shops that sell illegal paraphernalia.

4) Communities must stand together and push back against the sales of drug paraphernalia. Monitor local stores and report offenders to the police.

It’s important to realize that only in the absence of community voices have these shady stores managed establish a foothold in our communities. It’s time we raised our voices and pushed this parasitic business practice away from our kids and out of our neighborhoods.

Congressman Bob FilnerRepresentative for California’s 51st Congressional District

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage