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Glassblowing is Not a Crime But That Wasn’t Always the Case – A Look Back at Operation Pipe Dreams

By Jack Riordan
Glassblowing is Not a Crime But That Wasn’t Always the Case – A Look Back at Operation Pipe Dreams
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With the 2020 Glass Vegas Expo in the rearview and the CHAMPS Trade Show winding down today, most of the headiest headshops, smoke shops, and glass galleries across the country are once again stocked up for the year on everything from affordable, entry-level, production glass pipes and bongs to one-of-a-kind collector’s pieces handcrafted by the most sought after artists in the world with price tags that can push well into the five or even six-figure range.

That’s right… although the highest end of the functional glass market seems to have come back down to earth a bit in the past year or two, there are a select few pieces floating around the cannabis culture that fetched $100,000 or more at the time of sale.

When I was in high school, my buddy had a siiiiiick acrylic (i.e. PLASTIC) Graffix bong. It had one of those skeletons with the jester hat on the front and he had an oversized metal bowl/slide for it. We nearly wept the day he tried to clean it with lacquer thinner and it melted in his hands.

I’m no spring chicken, but I ain’t that old! So, how did we go from plastic bongs and metal pipes to the incredible craftsmanship and culture that the glass scene gives us today? As with all aspects of the cannabis culture, the trail was blazed many years ago, in the darker days of prohibition, when making and selling a pipe was just as dangerous as growing or selling the weed to pack into it.

Seventeen years ago, a multiagency federal law enforcement effort began to crackdown on the growing number of retailers who were providing smoking devices such as “water pipes” for “tobacco use only” in what would be dubbed Operation Pipe Dreams.

This flex was intended to squash this counterculture phenomenon completely, and some of the biggest names in the game got rolled up as a result. But as we have seen ever since, art always finds a way.

GLASS CLASS

Humans began to melt sand into glass well over 2000 years ago, and “heady” glass dates as far back as 30 BC when the most elite members of Roman society could commission tubes of naturally colored glass to be blown into hollow, vase-like vessels.

For thousands of years, cultures across the globe used everything from clay to coconuts to create pipe-like devices to smoke tobacco, hash, and cannabis, but it was not until 1977 that the first patent was filed for a pipe made completely out of glass.

So, although they certainly existed, the boom in popularity for the glass pipe or bong was still a couple of decades away.

As mentioned, I can vividly remember my favorite metal pipe from the mid-90s with the fat chamber in the center where we’d stash a choice flake of brick weed to collect resin. I remember smoking so many bowls we’d have to let that fucker cool down just so we could hold it in our hands. I remember stealing nasty calcified round screens from every faucet I’d come across to be used in the bottom of the bowl. Hell, I even had a “carb cap” for it!

But it was right around that time that the glass game began to level up quickly, fueled in large part by California’s new quasi-legal medical marijuana market that was formed in the wake of the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.

Cannabis was coming out of the shadows for the first time and the culture behind it was ready to reveal itself as well. The emerging artistry coming from those intrepid, pioneering glassblowers like Jason Harris (Jerome Baker Designs) finally allowed us to express our own style through the glass art that we chose to smoke out of.

As California’s MMJ market made waves around the world, the federal government saw a lucrative new target in storefront dispensaries and smash & grab raids resulting in criminal charges and massive amounts of asset forfeiture became the norm up and down the state.

But the pigs didn’t stop there… like I said, they wanted to kill this movement completely and paraphernalia was high on their hit list.

THE NIGHTMARE

In the spring of 2003, over 2,000 law enforcement agents were tasked as the muscle behind what would come to be known as Operation Pipe Dreams, a multi-month investigation and entrapment campaign aimed directly at the semi-exclusive fraternity of people creating and selling smoking accessories on a profitable scale.

Hundreds of homes and businesses were raided in a massive sweep and 55 people were arrested. Included on that list was Jason Harris of JBD, who had his life turned upside down for his role in the manufacturing and retailing of glass pipes and bongs.

Also caught up in the mess was Tommy Chong, whose son Paris Chong was paying 25 glassblowers a wage of $30/hour to bust out 100 pipes per day each. Agents posed as potential buyers and walked the young Chong right into an allegedly illegal sale.

From Wiki:

Federal agents, disguised as head-shop owners, pressured Paris Chong to sell them his pipes and deliver them through the mail to a fictitious shop in the Pittsburgh suburb of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. When Paris persistently refused, agents went to the place of business in person and ordered a massive quantity of out of stock merchandise. The merchandise was crafted but not picked up and sat idle in the warehouse as federal agents again pressured Paris to ship it. To get the merchandise out of his warehouse, DEA agents became employees and shipped the merchandise.

Looking for clickbait before clickbait was a thing, the cops nabbed Tommy for his name recognition, sentencing the infamous stoner to nine months in federal prison, hammering him with a fine of $20,000 and a forfeiture of $103,000 in assets, and slapping on a year of probation at the end.

In all, Operation Pipe Dreams is said to have cost American taxpayers upwards of $12,000,000 and for what? So that 17 years later thousands of pipe and bong retailers can gather in Las Vegas several times a year to spend tens of thousands of dollars each on these supposedly taboo goods?

What a waste, just like the rest of the War on Weed.

Tommy Chong is still getting paid to show up everywhere he goes, and Jerome Baker Designs has only gotten bigger… literally!

Art always finds a way.

If you have not seen it yet, there is an excellent documentary about glassblowing and this era by the name of Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes. Created by famed glass artist Marble Slinger and released back in 2011, this timeless history lesson is well worth a watch on DVD or via your favorite streaming services.

It goes without saying that anyone who has stepped up to the torch within the past ten years owes a massive amount of gratitude to the OGs who literally blazed the trail through those darker days but so do the rest of us in the cannabis culture who continue to marvel at, and smoke from, the most amazing functional art the world has ever seen.

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