- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would prevent vendors such as gas stations and liquor stores from buying and selling items that could enable illegal drug use.

The proposed legislation, which amends drug-paraphernalia legislation passed in 1982, would make it illegal to sell cigarette rolling papers or cigar leaf wrappers in stores that make less than 5 percent of their revenue from the sale of tobacco.

“There are some things that are normally only used for illegal drugs,” said council member Phil Mendelson, an at-large Democrat who is running for re-election. “We want to make it illegal for users to buy those things.”

The bill also would make it the buyer or seller’s responsibility to prove that the items will not be used for illegal drugs, instead of requiring the police to prove the particular item’s illegal use.

Mr. Mendelson and Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, a Democrat who is running for mayor, introduced the bill last week.

Their proposal would exempt small stores that sell loose tobacco and rolling papers. It instead targets businesses that sell only the papers.

Those papers can be used to roll up illegal drugs and often are sold specifically for that purpose, Mr. Mendelson said.

The papers have several legitimate uses such as rolling tobacco cigarettes. Musicians use the papers to keep keypads on wind instruments free from moisture.

Mr. Mendelson said that the legislation must strike a delicate balance between illegalizing supplies for drug users and punishing legal consumers of items such as test tubes, which can be fashioned into drug paraphernalia.

Items that would remain illegal under the legislation include cocaine freebase kits, glass or ceramic tubes with screens for use as a pipe; metal, wooden, acrylic, glass, stone, plastic or ceramic pipes; and glassy plastic bags or zipper bags smaller than 1 inch by 1 inch.

Possession of drug paraphernalia is punishable by up to 30 days in prison and a fine of up to $100. Selling drug paraphernalia is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

Brian Flowers, deputy general council for the D.C. Council said that although his office had not reviewed the proposed legislation, he does not think it violates the constitutional right of citizens to be innocent until proved guilty by presupposing the items’ use.

“I don’t see that’s a problem just on its face,” he said. “It follows many other laws that say the same thing. For example, if you have lock-picking tools, they can be used for normal purposes, but having them here is a criminal offense.”

Mrs. Cropp expects the legislation to be debated vigorously and plans to schedule a hearing soon.

“Part of what we are going to do is hear and review testimony,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is harm the rights of individuals. I think that parts of the bill will be passed but others will be discussed.”

Mr. Mendelson anticipates a variety of amendments to eliminate legal problems.

“I believe the bill will pass, but I expect that there will be considerable amendments to deal with the constitutional issues,” he said. “You can’t just lock people up because of some piece of property. … We can’t outlaw test tubes in the District of Columbia because we would probably have some very upset medical facilities, plus we could create a black market for some of those things.”

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