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Operation Pipe Dream & The Criminalization of the Art of Glass Blowing


Virtually every cannabis enthusiast has, at one point or another, purchased a glass pipe of some kind, whether it be a tiny little one-hitter or a bong large enough to rival the height of its owner. Glass pipes are so common in our cannabis-friendly society that we do not think anything of them when we come across them in gas stations, flea markets, and other family-friendly businesses. But, if you ask a handful of glassblowers about their passion, they will tell you that there was a time when they felt endangered by their own occupations.

Back in 2003, the Federal Government created an initiative to put an end to glass blowing specifically for the purpose of making pipes, and its consequences make us question why the initiative ever started. Operation Pipe Dream was a questionable era in our country’s cannabis-dotted history, and many of us, including the most cannabis savvy among us, never even knew it was happening.

A Bit of History

The art of glass blowing dates back to the 1st century, likely in Syria and its surrounding regions. Although glass blowing wasn’t developed primarily for pipes, archaeologists over the years have uncovered ancient glass pipes that were clearly intended for smoking cannabis. The glass pipes of the old days were far more fragile than today’s pipes, as the borosilicate glass material used today was not invented until the 19th century.

By the 1960s, as marijuana became more mainstream, glass pipes were sold in emerging head shops around the country, starting in San Francisco at the height of the hippie era. They were every bit as dazzling to consumers as they are today, with gorgeous patterns and colors allowing every pipe to be unique in its own way. And, decades later, glass pipes remain one of the most popular ways to consume cannabis, with the glass blowing industry continuing to thrive as a result, allowing artisans to put their skills to good use.

So, were glass pipes ever illegal? Well, that is a complicated question. Under federal law, glass pipes are classified as “drug paraphernalia,” but they aren’t illegal on their own, and therefore owning one does not necessarily mean you will get into trouble with the law, although they can be legally confiscated. And, in some states, they are illegal due to state laws that can differ from federal ones.

It is even more complicated than that, however, because technically, glass pipes are not solely for smoking marijuana. They can be used to smoke tobacco. Until recently, many glassblowers and head shops have tried to fly under the radar by advertising their pipes as tobacco pipes. ‘Tobacco use only’ signs were common at most head shops. Further, since 2018, hemp has been legal, and so glass pipes can be used to smoke hemp, which is a federally legal substance that is also legal in all 50 states except for Idaho and Iowa.

Operation Pipe Dream & Criminalizing Glass Blowing

Operation Pipe Dream was first set up in 2003, with essentially no warning, as a federal initiative to crack down on the glass blowing industry in what was referred to as an effort to crack down on marijuana use in general. The initiative was the brainchild of Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan of the Western District of Pennsylvania, aiming to use a relatively outdated statute to enforce a restriction against the sales of glass pipes, while putting many glassblowers out of a job in the process.

Supposedly, the effort coincided with the emerging e-commerce world, where cannabis users could purchase glass pipes through the online marketplace. Operation Pipe Dream had the ultimate goal of stopping the glass pipe industry completely throughout the country, but they quickly ran into a bit of an obstacle: by and large, law enforcement officials throughout the country had little interest in taking part in this operation, both because of the lack of resources and the lack of interest, combined with the fact that technically glass pipes were never considered illegal on their own in most states.

However, Pennsylvania and Iowa are two states in which law states that drug paraphernalia cannot cross state lines, and so it did not take long for the initiative to focus all of their resources on these states in an effort to follow through with their goals. However, their means for enforcement were questionable, to say the least.

In the end, on February 24th, 2003, 55 individual glass blowing operations were shut down, but the means for doing so were considerably aggressive. Homes were raided at abnormal hours, and glass blowers hogtied, handcuffed, and taken into custody. Ultimately, all of these business owners were released from jail quickly as the initiative proved to be a disaster.

The Chong Connection

One notable name was Tommy Chong, who was incarcerated as a result of Operation Pipe Dream. He was the only manufacturer who actually served time in jail, and it’s since been determined that this was to set an example to other glassblowers throughout the country, as he was specifically targeted. Chong, at the time, was promoting his son Paris’ glass blowing business, having financed it in order to help his son’s dreams come true. The business, called Chong Glass Works/Nice Dreams, employed 25 glassblowers, and sold high-end pieces to discerning customers desiring aesthetically exceptional pipes of all kinds.

To arrest Chong, federal agents pretended to be head shop owners and tried to pressure Paris into selling his pieces to a Pennsylvania business. Chong had been adamant that he would not sell glass pipes to Pennsylvania due to the state’s paraphernalia laws, so the agents posed as employees at the company’s warehouse, shipping the pipes to Pennsylvania themselves.

Chong pled guilty in the end, in exchange for keeping his wife and son out of jail. Later, word came out that targeting Chong came from a desire to retaliate against him for trivializing cannabis drug laws and law enforcement in his popular films.

How effective was the operation?

From the very beginning, Operation Pipe Dream was a politically motivated disaster waiting to happen. Over $12 million was spent in an effort to take down glassblowers around the country, and 2,000 law enforcement officials had to use precious resources to comply with the crackdown, which many of them never wanted to be a part of in the first place. The fact remains that the glass pipe industry was never viewed as a gateway to marijuana use, especially among minors, but the initiative went through to make a political statement.

Despite the fact that all of those arrested, with the exception of Chong, were released quickly, they remain unable to continue their operations to this day due to their criminal record. Today, it’s seen as a huge mistake, even among top law enforcement officials and federal agents, because of the enormous expense compared to the limited, if not non-existent impact that it had on drug use in our country.

What the Law Says Today

Clearly, Operation Pipe Dream failed and has proved to have zero impact on its original intent. Today, glass pipes remain a big business, employing many artisans who are fully dedicated to their craft and sell pieces that are as functional as they are artistic.

Although Operation Pipe Dream is but a distant memory to today’s glassblowers, the fact remains that it serves as a reminder that federal officials can and will use various means to minimize sales between cannabis customers and those who produce various products that contribute to the cannabis industry. And, oftentimes, these initiatives are fulfilled with little to no warning, which can leave those in the industry vulnerable to late-night raids and sudden arrests.

But, as the cannabis industry sees more and more legalization throughout the country, these initiatives will become fewer and farther between. For example, Pennsylvania officials are finally considering legalizing cannabis, which would likely change the state’s laws pertaining to paraphernalia. And, in many states across the country, marijuana has been legal for some time now, which means that glass pipes are not associated with any kind of illegal activity.

The Legacy of Operation Pipe Dream

At the end of the day, Operation Pipe Dream serves as another blemish on our country’s complicated cannabis laws. The criminalization of cannabis has seen many blunders over the years, but this one was particularly comical and short-lived due to failing almost immediately.

The hope is that as legalization continues to spread throughout the country, glass blowers and other manufacturers won’t be subjected to these humiliating raids and can continue to share their art with the world. It has been almost two decades since glassblowers were vulnerable to legal penalties, and needless to say, we hope that it never happens again.

Glass pipes are a long-standing tradition that goes back thousands of years, and this tradition is culturally and artistically significant in a way that should be honored and dignified rather than scrutinized for political gain and profit.


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