New War on Paraphernalia in Southern California

November 14, 2008 - In an unusual development, two Imperial Beach paraphernalia shops were raided by San Diego County Sheriffs on October 22 after a several-months-long undercover investigation. Sheriffs reportedly seized several thousand items of suspected drug paraphernalia, including pipes and bongs, from the shops Up in Smoke and Inner Visions. Two misdemeanor arrests were made, including a female woman identified as the owner of Inner Visions and Up In Smoke's owner Chris Nasser.

According to Imperial Beach Sheriff's Station captain Lisa Miller, the sting operation came after the San Diego district attorney and the sheriffs sent a compliance letter warning local smoke shops that they were ordered to stop selling drug paraphernalia under California Health and Safety Code 11364.7. Miller said two shops, Leon Discount Tobacco and Tommy's Tobacco, removed their drug paraphernalia and were not targeted by the undercover operation.

Tom Bobzin, an attorney for Nasser, said the sheriffs had no warrant or court order to seize Nasser's or Inner Vision's merchandise. He said the estimated dollar amount of Nasser's merchandise was between $30,000 to $40,000. "It has been confirmed through our investigation that the paraphernalia we purchased was going to be used for smoking marijuana," said Miller.

The compliance letter “is really just an attempt to redefine what constitutes paraphernalia by reinterpreting existing regulations,” said Bobzin, who said that other shops throughout San Diego county are receiving letters. “The enforcement agencies are ramping up for a zero tolerance policy in San Diego--one which will leave medical marijuana users, tobacco aficionados and other legal users without a source for this merchandise,” Bobzin said.

The Imperial Beach News reported that the day after the raids, October 23, a public rally protesting the existence of drug paraphernalia held at Pier Plaza in Imperial Beach by the San Diego-based Institute for Public Strategies (IPS) drew several dozen local residents. When asked if the date of the sting was in conjunction with the rally, Miller said no. "It's a total coincidence."

According to IPS’s website, it is a nonprofit organization with “local and national projects advancing public health through changes in policy and community norms.” IPS had funding of $1.6 million last year, mainly from government sources. Formed in 1995, it received $3.5 million at its height in 2002.

Also on October 23, the Imperial Beach city council extended an emergency ordinance prohibiting new tobacco smoke shops for one year. The city plans to create more formal guidelines limiting where the shops can open and what they can sell.

"I can't recall any other such marijuana paraphernalia busts in California in 20 years. Neither can I recall a public anti-paraphernalia rally," said Dale Gieringer of California NORML. "If the stores admitted that they're for use with marijuana, however, they would arguably be illegal, unless they said it was for 215 patients."

Update: According to the North County Times (12/19), law enforcement officials served search warrants at 11 more businesses in Vista, San Macros and Escondido.