That time the feds rounded up Tommy Chong—and 50 others—for selling bongs
“Operation Pipe Dreams” required $12 million and around 2,000 members of law enforcement.
Fifteen years ago, 55 bong makers were completely caught off guard. During the spring of 2003, a large-scale federal investigation was launched into drug paraphernalia being made and sold throughout the United States. The operation cost around $12 million and the use of around 2,000 members of law enforcement. It was called “Operation Pipe Dreams,” which is tacky as all hell.
Stores and glass blowing studios were raided. In the case of Jason Harris, he heard the front door to his house busted in around six in the morning. “I got hogtied and arrested and I didn’t actually know what was going on until I got to the jail cell and was watching T.V.,” said Harris in a Huffington Post interview.
Thousands of bongs were destroyed and 55 individuals were arrested, but, among them, only one received a prison sentence: Tommy Chong of the iconic Cheech & Chong. His high profile, and the fact that he was the only person to serve time following the raids, raised skepticism among smokers and abstainers alike over the purpose of Operation Pipe Dreams.
Chong Glass Works was not even started by the actor Tommy Chong, but by his son Paris Chong. Tommy acted as an investor and a spokesperson for the company, and in 2003 he agreed to become its patsy for Operation Pipe Dreams. As part of a plea bargain to spare Shelby, his wife, and his son, Tommy Chong accepted charges of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia. Tommy Chong went on to spend nine months in prison, sharing a cell with Jordan Belfort, better known as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’
Much like cannabis itself, paraphernalia can be federally prosecuted if need be. It’s much easier to do so, however, if it’s caught crossing state lines than if it’s just being sold locally. Investigators, setting up the sting for Operation Pipe Dreams, really had to twist Paris Chong’s arm to deliver a set of pipes to a fake store in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. They only wore Chong down by going to his store in-person, commissioning an order, returning to Pennsylvania and waiting for him to get sick of the stock collecting dust in the shop.
While Operation Pipe Dreams was stated to be a method of tracking down dealers through the sales of pipes, it seemed more like a way to make a statement. It didn’t demoralize drug dealers, but stoners, by arresting a cultural icon. Even in the Operation Pipe Dreams hearings for Tommy Chong, they cited his work in films for promoting drug culture and ‘trivializing’ law enforcement.
Fifteen years after Operation Pipe Dreams, things have changed. Celebrity endorsed paraphernalia is as common as Maybelline makeup lines. Six states have legalized recreational cannabis. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that obscure policy and a nasty Department of Justice is enough to wreak havoc on the progress.