|Glass Artists' Arrests Stoke 'Culture War'|
Posted by CN Staff on March 09, 2003 at 13:44:29 PT|
By Bob Keefer, The Register-Guard
For six years, Jason Harris and Saeed Mohtadi ran their glass pipe businesses entirely in the open.
Harris sold the smoking pipes through his retail store, Higher Source, at 133 E. 13th Ave. The two men advertised and sold glass pipes on the Internet, using such domain names as ghettoweb.com. Anyone could buy one of their pipes - which are of a kind commonly used for smoking marijuana - with a Visa card. Harris and Mohtadi apparently believed that the pipes, which were advertised for use with tobacco or incense, were legal.
What they didn't know until quite recently was that agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration were conducting a detailed investigation of their businesses, involving "undercover" buys from the wide-open businesses, secret surveillance and even a "trash pull," in which agents rifled through the businesses' garbage.
Last month, as part of a nationwide bust called Operation Pipe Dreams, agents swept in and arrested the two businessmen, charging them with selling drug paraphernalia. They each face three years in prison and $250,000 fines, as well as forfeiture of their businesses and homes. Across the country, 50 people were arrested in the sweep, the biggest drug paraphernalia clampdown in the agency's history.
The arrests point up a series of deep fault lines in American culture: over marijuana, over art, over free expression, even over states' rights.
Most of the plain facts in the Harris and Mohtadi cases are not in dispute. They are also somewhat unusual for a criminal case.
Harris and Mohtadi ran a national distribution company for pipes made by Harris' firm, Jerome Baker Designs. They had employees. They paid taxes. They advertised. Their pipes were labeled "for tobacco use only" or labeled as incense burners and can, in fact, be used to smoke tobacco or burn incense. Harris and Mohtadi seemed to believe that their businesses had stayed on the legal side of federal law, which bars the sale of items "primarily intended" for drug use.
The law, 21 U.S. Code Section 863, originally was enacted as part of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It has been challenged repeatedly as unconstitutionally vague but has withstood legal tests up to the Supreme Court. It specifically bars the sale of glass smoking pipes, as well as those made of almost any other material, but allows pipes "traditionally intended for use with tobacco." In determining what use a pipe is intended for, officials can look in part at how it was advertised and what the makers and retailers say it should be used for, the law says.
Broader issues erupted as well with the arrests here. Harris and Mohtadi have been heavily involved with the burgeoning art glass scene in Eugene. Their arrests seem, to some, an attack on an underground art form that's grown up in Lane County over the past generation.
"This has very little to do with drugs," said Lane Arts Council Executive Director Douglas Beauchamp. "It's part of a culture war. I have a personal take on this. It has to do with the chilling of America as fostered by (Attorney General John) Ashcroft, and going after people who make craft items, artifacts, art, and wrapping it all into a coarse and repressive attack."
But is it art?
Alder Gallery owner Candy Moffett, who has shown glass art (though not pipes) by Harris at her Coburg gallery, says all his work - pipes included - is artistic.
"Are the glass pipes art?" she said. "Yes. Just as Jason has a control and mastery of the medium, I think his pipes are artworks. They are done in such a masterful way, they are sculptures. Look at meerschaum pipes. There are meerschaum pipes considered sculptures. These are, too."
At the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Portland, Ken Magee, assistant special agent in charge, scoffed at the notion that glass pipes could be considered art.
"I find that somewhat laughable, referring to drug paraphernalia as collectible art," he said. "I find it somewhat engaging that you would refer to this as 'collectible art' when it's drug paraphernalia."
Magee, who said he had little time to discuss issues surrounding the case, bristled when asked whether it makes sense to conduct a nationwide drug-paraphernalia bust even as the nation fights terrorism at home and across the globe and heads for war in Iraq.
"The DEA enforces drug laws within the state of Oregon as well as within the United States," he said. "We collectively as an agency will define our priorities on a day-to-day basis. It is quite obvious that an investigation of this magnitude doesn't happen overnight."
Nationwide, the DEA has enthusiastically sought to enlarge the definition of paraphernalia, sometimes running into First Amendment and artistic expression issues.
Last year, a federal judge in Louisiana granted a permanent order sought by the American Civil Liberties Union to stop the DEA from classifying glow sticks and pacifiers at rave concerts as drug paraphernalia.
A market for other glass
Harris and Mohtadi were substantial contributors to and members of the board of directors at Eugene Glass School, a 4-year-old nonprofit institute founded, at least in part, to show Lane County bong makers that a market exists for other glass as well.
In addition, Mohtadi was treasurer of the school and Harris served in an unofficial role as coordinator, making sure the kilns were running and supplies were on hand each day. They both resigned from the board and other duties shortly after the arrests.
George Kjaer, a retired physician who helped start the school, said the Eugene Glass School has always insisted on a "Chinese wall" between the art glass it teaches and the bong-making that has supported many of its students.
"We have worked diligently to create a significant barrier not only between the school and these two companies but against the production and utilization of paraphernalia on our campus and in our teaching programs," he said. "We have tried to stimulate these artisans to think in terms of fine art. We have gone out of our way to seek people who would otherwise have been dropouts but have found a voice in art."
Adding to the culture-war perception is the fact that the two men are being charged and prosecuted not here in Eugene but in Pittsburgh, Pa., where a large retailer selling their pipes was arrested.
After arresting the Pittsburgh retailer, DEA officials in that region broadened their quest and began surveillance of Harris' and Mohtadi's businesses in Eugene.
The 47-page affidavit supporting the federal search warrant used in the arrest lists in detail the steps agents took:
In June 2000, two men were convicted in Pittsburgh of selling drug paraphernalia that they had obtained wholesale from Jerome Baker Designs. Following a simple trail of public records, agents identified Harris and Mohtadi last August.
In September, agents "located and observed" the Higher Source store and, "acting in undercover capacities," entered the store and "observed hundreds of Jerome Baker Designs items."
While in the store, the undercover agent was told by "an unidentified male" that Jerome Baker Designs was named after the late musician Jerry Garcia and "baker," slang for a marijuana user.
Also in September, agents bought $741.79 worth of glass pipes, including "1 Extra Fancy Phat Mama Bong" at $184, through ghettoweb.com, paying for it with a Visa card.
Eugene lawyer Greg Veralrud, who is representing Mohtadi, said it was too early to talk about any specific defense to the federal charges, but laid out several possibilities.
Veralrud said he may seek a change of venue to bring the case back to Eugene. All Mohtadi's witnesses are here and would have to fly to Pennsylvania to testify.
Is the DEA venue shopping by filing its charges in a culturally conservative district in Pennsylvania?
"People in Oregon tend not to be as troubled" by marijuana-related issues, Veralrud said, adding that the fact his client advertised on the Internet may have been a key factor in his arrest.
"The impression is, 'If you kept this in your own back yard we wouldn't bother you. The god-honest burghers of Pennsylvania won't put up with the liberal high-falutin' dope-smokin' ways of Eugene, Oregon.' "
Veralrud added that the federal government has long been unhappy with Oregon's medical marijuana law.
"We have a fairly mature medical marijuana program. It's become something the public is ever more accepting of. I have to think we have an environment where even among folks who don't agree with using marijuana, they are generally more accepting of the fact that others do," he said.
The lawyer also said that, given the seriousness of the charges, a plea bargain is always a possibility. "My client is a young man with a young family. I know he's also in a little bit of a quandary. He made an effort to do this aboveboard. There is not a whiff of unlawful activity. He's never been secretive about it."
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