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He also had lawyers check state and local statutes and was assured that Nice Dreams was safe from any kind of prosecution. Paris and his business manager attended closed trade shows in Las Vegas sponsored by Contemporary Tobacco Accessories and, after a few years, won grudging respect within what he calls “a small, weird industry” even though Nice Dreams would never turn a profit. Then, three years into his venture, an attorney addressing one of the Vegas trade shows alerted the gathering to the 1986 federal statute governing pipes and other drug paraphernalia — a statute that superseded state laws.
“He said it’s so technical it’s virtually impossible not to break the law,” Paris Chong recalls. “But I was so invested in the business by then, and after 9/11 no one thought they [the government] would take the time and money to do anything about it. Then I got the nightmare call at 6 in the morning.”
“Operation Pipe Dreams,” as the government dubbed its commando raids on head shops and accessory makers, used as its battering ram Title 21, Section 863(a), of the U.S. Code, which, among other things, makes it a crime “to sell or offer for sale drug paraphernalia.” This statute was a study in taxidermy collecting dust until 1994, when the Supreme Court, in Posters ’N’ Things v. United States, ruled that head-shop owners did not have to know that their smoking pipes, roach clips and coke spoons were being used for illicit purposes to be prosecuted. Still, most vendors thought they could get around the ruling by creatively renaming their products, so that bongs suddenly became “tobacco pipes.”
Ashcroft’s Department of Justice did not find many takers among state law-enforcement agencies as it prepared its ban-the-bong crusade and filed most of the cases in willing Iowa and in western Pennsylvania, whose U.S. attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, received her appointment from the Bush administration days before 9/11. Buchanan, who has ridden a meteoric career prosecuting child-pornography and white-collar crimes, has become a point person for the DOJ’s anti-drug war and for Ashcroft’s decrees that U.S. prosecutors and judges embrace “upward departure” when it comes to sentencing guilty defendants. (She is currently pressing a high-profile porn prosecution against North Hollywood’s Extreme Associates.)
“These were businesses in business to sell illegal products,” Buchanan told me by phone. “We didn’t treat Thomas Chong any different.” She explained the logic of going after Tommy rather than Paris. “Tommy Chong was the more responsible corporate officer because he financed and marketed the product.”
The first shot in Operation Pipe Dreams was actually fired three years ago in Pittsburgh, during the Clinton administration, when the government successfully prosecuted Akhil Kumar Mishra and his wife, Rajeshwari, whose two head shops sold drug paraphernalia in the city’s downtown.
“I was very aware of which communities not to sell to,” Paris Chong says. “I had told our sales people at the time we could not sell to Pittsburgh or anywhere in western Pennsylvania.”
But federal agents, posing as head-shop owners from Pittsburgh’s neighboring Beaver County, had pleaded with him to sell them his pipes through the mail to a fictitious shop in Beaver Falls. Not only that, but Paris says another agent, pretending to be a head-shop customer in Texas, asked Tommy Chong, during an in-store appearance on behalf of Nice Dreams, if the company’s pipes were good for smoking marijuana. Chong didn’t hesitate to answer yes — a reply that would be used against him in court. So far, Chong has drawn the severest sentence of all those swept up by Operation Pipe Dreams.
“I got the distinct impression that Tommy Chong was to be an example,” says Pittsburgh attorney Stanton Levenson, who represented Chong at his hearing. “I believe when this is over he will be the only defendant of the 55 without previous convictions who will do jail time.”
Levenson is a veteran criminal lawyer who considers himself on good terms with Pittsburgh’s federal prosecutors, but he sensed something different about them the moment he stepped into the courtroom to represent Chong.
“They were all rigid,” he says, “because Ashcroft has pretty much tied their hands and made the attorneys’ offices homogenous, inflexible. [Prosecutor] Mary Houghton definitely seemed more aggressive and forceful in this case.”
Levenson, in a phone interview, said he had been surprised by the government’s indictment of Chong. “We never see this kind of case on a federal level.”
According to Levenson, the deal he struck with the prosecutors allowed them to prosecute Tommy Chong and Chong Glass (effectively shutting it down), in exchange for leaving wife Shelby, who had signed the family’s loan checks, and Paris alone. Tommy cooperated with the government and was the first of Operation Pipe Dreams’ defendants to plead guilty. But while the feds told Levenson they were not necessarily seeking jail time, their legal body language said otherwise.
“We didn’t ask the judge for anything,” Buchanan says. “Nine months is right in the middle of the sentencing guideline range.”
The family clung to the possibility of leniency.