Today’s Art, Yesterday’s Paraphernalia: Remembering Operation Pipe Dreams

“Jason had no idea his arrest was apart of the nationwide until Tommy Chong, who would become the trophy of the operation, reached out to him.”

In 2003, hundreds of businesses and homes were raided across the nation in what was code named “Operation Pipe Dreams.” The operation targeted large-scale pipe and bong distributors. Most remember it for the arrest and conviction of cannabis celebrity, Tommy Chong, but the multi-agency sting indicted 55 other people with the little known charge of trafficking illegal drug paraphernalia.

Using questionable tactics and resources that could have been used to fight hard drugs, DEA members set up glass producers by creating a fictitious business in Pennsylvania. The agents posing as head shop owners coaxed wholesale glass distributors across the country into selling them pipes and bongs. Once the merchandise was delivered, the agents obtained warrants and raided the businesses and employers from which they ordered glass.

One of those individuals was Jason Vrbas, former owner of 101 North and present owner of Glass House in Humboldt County, California. He currently teaches and sells everything glass artists need to blow glass, but his former business, 101 North, was one of the first businesses to be raided during the operation.

Jason was courageous enough to tell us his story. I caught up with him at his shop in Arcata, California to hear his account of Operation Pipe Dreams.

101 North started out as a group of friends who blew glass together. Once the group reached about a half dozen, they saw a growing need for glass products. So, they took the steps to become a legitimate business. They rented a commercial building in southern Arcata and hired more and more glass blowers until they reached about 50 employees, which took up five warehouses.

The business grew quickly as members traveled the country and met potential clients. In the first two years the group began wholesaling glassware to head shops across the U.S. It was a dream come true for the group: they did what they loved, hired their friends and made a legitimate living while doing it.

That is until 2003 and Operation Pipe Dreams. For whatever reason Jason and 101 North became a main target of the DEA. Thinking he was running a legitimate business, paying taxes, wages, etc., he was unknowingly being staked out by the federal government.  His life was about to change.

In early 2003 Jason and his co-owners were raided by DEA agents using paramilitary tactics.

The morning of the raid Jason didn’t know why law enforcement was at his door. He was woken up at 5:30 a.m. to what he thought was a fire because there were so many lights flashing around his house.

“As soon as I reached for the door I heard ‘DEA, search warrant!’” About 20 federal agents stormed his house — some in suits — some in full military garb wielding laser pointed assault rifles.

He was tackled down a flight of stairs, and dragged into the front yard where he was handcuffed facedown in his underwear. At that point, he heard his girlfriend screaming inside the house. She was tackled in the hallway with a gun to her head, screaming, “don’t kill the dogs!”

Cuffed and unclothed, Jason could barely make out what seemed like a full-scale military operation, “I had my head down in the grass and I looked to the side and saw people in military gear running all around the house, neighbors opening their blinds looking out wondering what was going on, I looked over to the road and there was probably about eight black SUV’s lined up.”

“I had no idea why they were there.”

Finally they took Jason back in the house. Federal officers threw him in a room where they interrogated him. They started throwing down paper after paper on the bed. There were search warrants for 101 North, Glass House and all of his property.  Jason remembers seeing one local sheriff there. This officer seemed terrified and overwhelmed by the tactics used by the federal officers. He remembers the sheriff asking if he could cover Jason’s girlfriend who was in her underwear on the couch. They eventually raided all his property — breaking and smashing everything along the way. They never found any drugs, only pipes at 101 North.

Jason had no idea his arrest was apart of the nationwide operation until Tommy Chong, who would become the trophy of the operation, reached out to him. Tommy had not yet been arrested, and was just becoming aware of the operation at that time.  The next day Mr. Chong was arrested. Reports of the national sting began to make headlines. This is when Jason learned he was one of 55 individuals who were indicted.

Some time later, Jason and his partners were flown to Pennsylvania where they faced federal prosecution. It was a nerve wracking time because Tommy Chong had been sentenced to nine months in prison by the same judge days prior to their court date. Jason said federal prosecutors “claimed our website was invading the bedrooms of the children of America.” However, 101 North never sold to individuals or over the Internet. Their website was strictly promotional, for those over the age of eighteen and 101 North only operated in the wholesale of glassware. The group pled guilty to one felony ‘Conspiracy to Manufacture Paraphernalia,’ and was given nine months of home detention, and three years probation.

As Jason confided, “the end result of Operation Pipe Dreams more or less backfired on [the federal government],” he added. “The main thing was that they put a lot of tax paying Americans out of work… And now you can go to any liquor store and buy cheap pipes and bongs made in India and China.” Nearly fifteen years later, it’s still a tough pill for Jason to swallow. He feels it’s an example of the failed War on Drugs and as cannabis normalizes, it just doesn’t become any easier for him to accept. Jason said, “I got a felony for conspiracy to manufacture paraphernalia out of a state that you can legally (medically) buy marijuana. It’s a federal felony so unless I get a presidential pardon I can’t expunge it and it affects me for everything like voting, bearing arms and traveling to countries like Canada. Those are the things that bother me the most.”

Written by Ian Crossar

Emerald contributor since March 2012


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