Modesto police cracking down on 'head shops'

Glass 'Incense oil burners' can be purchased openly at many local stores.  Police say people use the pipes to smoke meth and cocaine.
Glass 'Incense oil burners' can be purchased openly at many local stores. Police say people use the pipes to smoke meth and cocaine. Modesto Bee

Local narcotics investigators seized thousands of glass pipes from three "head shops" last week, leaving eight people with citations that could bring as much as six months in jail and $1,000 fines.

Head shops stock smoking supplies of all kinds, from large colorful water pipes to rolling papers and standard pipes. The pipes are legal to sell as long as no one mentions illegal drugs.

Friday's operation was intended to send a strong message to businesses in the city, said Modesto police Sgt. Steve Hinkley, supervisor of the Narcotics Enforcement Team. "Glass crank pipes" are illegal and their sale will not be tolerated, he said.

But shop owners say they're not selling "crank pipes." They call the products "incense oil burners." Pouring scented oil into the pipe and heating it with a candle or lighter, they say, is an aromatherapy technique.

And they're not the only ones using the term. A woman who walked into a Modesto shop Tuesday stepped up to the counter to buy an "incense oil burner."

"We don't have those anymore," said the man behind the counter. He lowered his voice before adding, "We got in trouble for that."

The language used by salespeople and customers in these shops marks the line between following or breaking the law.

A sign in one shop spells out the terms: "You will be refused service for saying any of the following words: bong, weed or pot pipe, coke spoon, straight shooter, crack pipe, shaker vial, tooter, or any other illegal reference. All items intended for legal use with tobacco only."

The pipes police want to ban have a 3-inch tube with a roughly 1-inch bubble on one end. The bubble has a hole on the top to allow ventilation. The pipes are sold alone or sometimes have a plastic flower inside and are sold in boxes with names such as "Happy Valentine Glass Rose" or "Love Rose."

Experts dispute therapeutic use

Several aromatherapy experts said these pipes are not commonly used or sold in the natural products industry.

Police searched three shops Friday looking for "glass crank pipes," "glass rock cocaine pipes" or any paraphernalia used for methamphetamine or rock cocaine, according to the search warrant.

At 4:30 p.m., they visited No-Limit Smoke Shop at 1209 McHenry Ave., confiscated a "couple hundred" pipes and wrote three tickets, said Hinkley. Next, they went to Scorpio at 1725 Prescott Road, found 25 pipes and wrote two tickets. Their last stop was EZ Rock at 436 Paradise Road, where they wrote three tickets and seized a "couple thousand" pipes.

Those ticketed, shop owners and staff members alike, will appear in court Nov. 3. Hinkley said investigators chose the most prominent shops.

Despite the crackdown, the pipes are easy to find. The Bee found two smoke shops in Modesto selling the pipes Tuesday. Sales clerks had not heard from police about the pipes being illegal, though the items were kept in boxes or below the counter, rather than on display.

One shop owner ticketed Friday, who said he did not want to be named out of concern he would be penalized by police, said he considers the police action a clampdown on civil liberties.

"Where do you draw the line?" he asked. "How many rights do you want to take from us?"

The owner said invoices list the pipes as "oil burners" and that he is not responsible for how customers use them. Foil, spoons, light bulbs and car antennas can be used to smoke methamphetamine, he said. So how does confiscating his property make Modesto safer, he asked.

"Instead of going after smoke shops, go after wholesalers," he said. "I'm having enough trouble paying my rent. To pick on us for every little thing, it's not right."

Murky and complex paraphernalia laws leave open the question of whether the recent citations will stick. As long as no one calls the pipes "crack pipes," some say, no one is acting illegally. But officials say a crack pipe is a crack pipe, no matter what anyone calls it. Residents in some cities, such as San Diego; Spokane, Wash.; and Greeley, Colo., have pushed for ordinances to stop the sale of such pipes. Modesto does not have such an ordinance.

But local law enforcement agents say the pipes are illegal under the California Health and Safety Code. Further, Hinkley said, smoke shop owners should take responsibility for their wares.

"We're all responsible for what happens in our community. And just because I'm just providing someone with a tool to use the drugs, that shouldn't be OK," he said. "If you're making it easier, you're part of the problem."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at or 578-2235.