Operation Pipe Dreams turns 20

A 2003 DEA operation targeted 7 Pittsburgh-area counterculture shops—and Tommy Chong —for selling pipes and cannabis paraphernalia. The statute remains valid.

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Tommy Chong in Pittsburgh. Still from "A/K/A Tommy Chong," written and directed by Josh Gilbert.

It was roughly 6am on February 24, 2003 when a dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agents roused and arrested Randy Przekop at his South Side Pittsburgh home.

The crime? Selling a small, 4 or 5 inch wooden pipe to an undercover agent at Slacker, his East Carson Street counterculture shop.

It wasn’t until a handcuffed Przekop arrived downtown at the Federal Building, alongside other area headshop owners, that he learned he was one of more than 50 people ensnared in Operation Pipe Dreams, a nationwide Department of Justice investigation involving some 2,000 law enforcement agents aimed at shutting down online drug paraphernalia sales.

The cost? About $12 million.

“People selling drug paraphernalia are, in essence, no different than drug dealers,” said John Brown, then-acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, at a press conference announcing the operation. “They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide.”

Pipe Dreams was ran out of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. (A parallel investigation, Operation Headhunter, targeted shops in Iowa, where paraphernalia was also illegal.)

The DEA operated their sting out of Beaver Falls, PA, where agents solicited out-of-state companies that sold glass pipes and bongs over the internet, which were illegal in Pennsylvania. 

“We can assure worried parents that today there are 11 dot.coms that are dot.gone”

In addition to the internet sting, federal investigators also charged 10 people from 7 “regional shops” with “conspiracy, offering for sale and selling drug paraphernalia,” including Przekop, Richard Kevin Jaussen of Tela Ropa in Oakland, and the owners of headshops in Johnstown, North Huntingdon, Clarion and Erie.

In a 2005 interview with NPR’s Terri Gross, Buchanan said the operation began in the early 2000s with an investigation of a single Pittsburgh-area headshop that acquired paraphernalia from out of state.

“For years, we tried to work it out as far as what was allowed to be sold,” said Przekop. “We were buying from a particular company on the East Coast that was approved by the government. The same exact pipes that were approved were used as evidence against me.”

A similar claim was made by Jaussen, owner of Oakland’s Tela Ropa. In a 2004 Pitt News article, he claimed he left messages with the DEA and consulted Pittsburgh police before he started to sell pipes. 

Tela Ropa closed that same year. Former managers Gregg Pangle and Kevin Barko did not respond to a request for comment. Jaussen passed away a few years after the raid.

Pittsburgh counterculture stores were almost an afterthought when compared to Pipe Dream’s biggest target—comedian Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong. 

Chong eventually copped a deal to protect his wife and his son, Paris, in whose California company—Nice Dreams Enterprises—Chong was invested. The saga is told in the 2006 documentary, A/K/A Tommy Chong.

The pro-Chong, pro-cannabis flick paints a narrative of a show trial by a Justice Department looking to take down a notorious counterculture icon and assert a moral authority over post-9/11 America—led by the same Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who promulgated the Patriot Act, and a zealous U.S. Attorney’s office led by Buchanan.

“The defendant has become wealthy throughout his entertainment career through glamorizing the illegal distribution and use of marijuana,” wrote Assistant United States District Attorney Mary Houghton about Chong in her sentencing memo. 

“Feature films that he made with his longtime partner Cheech Marin, such as ‘Up in Smoke,’ trivialize law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use.”

Chong was the sole defendant without a criminal record who served time inside a federal prison. He was sentenced to 9 months. He served his time at Taft Correctional Institution in California, where his cellmate was the “real-life Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort.

In June 2004, after the raid, Ashcroft appointed Buchanan director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. She led the failed prosecution of former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht in 2008, and in 2010 she launched a failed bid for U.S. Congress. (Chong and Wecht appeared at a Pittsburgh comedy fundraiser for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee prior to her losing to Keith Rothfus in the Republican primary.)

Buchanan’s LinkedIn reveals she is now global chief legal officer for Merkle Science, a “next generation predictive cryptocurrency risk and intelligence platform.”

Patrick Nightingale, local attorney and president of Pittsburgh NORML, says the federal statute governing paraphernalia, 21 U.S.C. 863, “is still valid,” a stark example of the discrepancy in how federal authorities treat and classify cannabis versus the 21 states that have legalized cannabis outright.

“What a pathetic waste of resources,” said Nightingale. “While Tommy went on to renewed success, how many other lives did [Buchanan] ruin with her ridiculous prosecution?”

Przekop ended up with a 12-month sentence, the first half spent on house arrest and the second half on probation. Tela Ropa’s Jaussen received two years of probation, including three months of home detention.

Przekop said he took the plea to protect his workers, including McClain, who unknowingly sold the pipe to the undercover officer.

Today, McClain owns Slacker, which is more of a variety store, though not without a few stray pipes for good measure. It’s located at 1304 E. Carson, across the street from Slacker’s original location next to the former Beehive Coffeehouse.

“Every single store that has been in my storefront in the years since [moving] has been a pipe shop,” notes Przekop, wryly. 

“Every single one.”

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He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.

He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.

In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.