Smoked out

Local tobacconists sell meth pipes with their cigarettes

INCENSE BURNER? YEAH, RIGHT<br>Chico Police Capt. Mike Maloney examines a pipe bought at Discount Cigarettes in Oroville and a bong from Cigarette City in Chico. His assessment: They appear to be meant for smoking methamphetamine or crack cocaine. The woman who sold the bong described it as an “incense burner.”

Chico Police Capt. Mike Maloney examines a pipe bought at Discount Cigarettes in Oroville and a bong from Cigarette City in Chico. His assessment: They appear to be meant for smoking methamphetamine or crack cocaine. The woman who sold the bong described it as an “incense burner.”

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

More on the strike forceFor information about meth and what Butte County is doing to combat it, check out

It’s no secret Butte County has a meth problem. People here cook it, sell it, snort it and smoke it. And they become addicted to it. There’s even a whole strike force dedicated to eradicating the easily manufactured, easily obtained substance.

So, how is it that retail businesses can legally sell paraphernalia used specifically for smoking methamphetamine? Basically, it comes down to advertising. Instead of saying “crank pipe,” they call the long, cylindrical glass object with a bulb and hole at the end an “incense burner.” Or they claim it’s for tobacco use.

“The way the law is written, and the way they advertise those products, is that it’s not for methamphetamine—it’s labeled for use with tobacco products,” said John Thulan, interim commander at the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey agreed: “No one is going to be dumb enough to say, ‘Buy your meth pipe here.’ “

So long as it’s in the display case, with no residue, selling a pipe or bong is not illegal. “The possession of paraphernalia generally isn’t a violation until it’s been used,” Thulan said.

Trips to familiar shops like Blaze N J’s, The Underground and The Dungeon revealed exactly what one would expect from a hippie haven: your average pipes, bongs, hookahs and the like. A visit to one of Chico’s friendly neighborhood smoke shops, however, turned up more than cigarettes and pot paraphernalia (ahem, “tobacco” paraphernalia).

Along the wall hang plastic baggies and vials, in convenient sizes for, say, storing drugs ready to be sold. Inside glass cases are items commonly known as cocaine “bullet hitters,” small vials with tiny spoons attached. And when you think you’ve gotten to the end of the bongs and pipes, you see a few oddly shaped bong-like objects that the nice woman behind the counter at Cigarette City described as incence burners.

“So, you can’t smoke out of them?”

“We’re all adults, we know what you can do. But that’s all I can tell you,” she replied. She then motioned over to a small display, saying, “We also sell these incense burners.” The item she was pointing to was Google’s definition of a crank pipe, attached by tape to a wooden platform with a candle underneath. Do a Google image search for “meth pipe” or “crank pipe.” That’s exactly what this incense burner looked like.

“It’s unusual to see this configuration for smoking marijuana,” said Chico police Capt. Mike Maloney, referring to the glass bulb with a small opening at the end of the glass object that looks like a bong, purchased at Cigarette City. The hole is too small for tobacco or marijuana—perhaps hash might fit—but most likely the device is used to smoke methamphetamine or crack, he said.

The owners of Cigarette City, listed by Butte County as Shalu Bagga and Sarbjit Singh Kahlon, were unavailable for comment.

When the owner of Discount Cigarettes in Oroville, Aaron Omaryar, was contacted, he answered curtly but not unexpectedly: “We have pipes for tobacco use only.”

Omaryar’s store offers pipes like the one at Cigarette City, only prettier, with designs on the bulb, and bongs that look like they came out of a meth lab: beaker-shaped. There are also baggies—available in different colors and patterns. When asked about the odd-looking pipes with the little holes on top, the woman behind the counter said, “I have no idea what that’s for.”

Fair enough, but Maloney knows better.

“This is absolutely a crack pipe,” he said while holding up the clear glass pipe with delicate blue swirls painted on its bulbous tip. “We arrest people all the time for mere possession of pipes like this.”

Unlike marijauna, methamphetamine is extremely addictive and often leads to crime and violence, among other personal side-effects. According to the Butte County Meth Strike Force’s Web site, meth users range from white, blue-collar men—particularly truck drivers, who work long, late hours—to college students who want to stay up and increase their sex drives, to women who hope to lose weight.

And with meth being the “fastest-growing ‘recreational’ drug on the street,” according to the site, it’s awfully convenient for people to be able to buy their pipes at a local store, rather than fashioning their own out of a lightbulb or other items. In turn, stores like Cigarette City and Discount Cigarettes make money off of people’s addictions.

“It’s unfortunate that stores sell these things,” said BINTF’s Thulan. “It’s equally frustrating for us. These manufactured items that are apparent they have one sole use shouldn’t be available to the public, but it’s going to take legislation on the state level to make changes.”

Federally, however, in 2003, Operation Pipe Dreams took down more than 50 distributors accused of trafficking illegal drug paraphernalia, specifically on the Internet. A Department of Justice news release following the indictments reads: “Federal law defines drug paraphernalia as those products that are primarily intended or designed to be used in ingesting, inhaling or otherwise using controlled substances, and include user-friendly and dealer-friendly devices. Items such as miniature scales, substances for ‘cutting’ or diluting raw narcotics, bongs, marijuana pipes, roach clips, miniature spoons and cocaine freebase kits, among other things, are all considered drug paraphernalia.”

Apparently advertising such items as anything but drug paraphernalia, no matter that they’re “primarily intended or designed to be used” in ingesting illicit drugs, gets sellers off the hook so they can make their money.

“Is this particular implement for the smoking of controlled substances, for decorative purposes, for tobacco? Anyone can come up with an innocent explanation of what it’s used for,” Ramsey said. “It’s rather disingenuous of people who are selling them as incense burners. They are putting profit ahead of community safety and health.”