When the city banned the sale of small plastic bags for holding crack, the underground market didn’t die. It just went deeper underground.

You can buy many things at Edmond Charles’ shoebox of a store at Georgia Avenue and Park Road NW: sodas and Hershey bars and canned soup and Reynold’s Plastic Wrap. Anything you need to cool off on a hot day or stock your pantry at home. But there’s one thing you definitely can’t buy: small—we’re talking very tiny—plastic bags.

Not that some people don’t try. Charles says the previous owner of Kim’s Grocery may have sold the small bags, to judge from the number of people who’ve come in requesting them in the three months since he’s owned the store. He always gives them a curt response. “If they ask for small zip-lock baggies, I tell them to use the ones over there,” says Charles, pointing to a shelf stocked with two kinds of bags: pint-sized storage bags and the larger quart-sized ones, for stowing leftovers in the freezer.

You might think a new owner wouldn’t be so brusque with potential customers, nor care what size plastic bags they’re shopping for. After all, the bags seem harmless enough: Clear, with a tiny, useful plastic zipper at the top, they’re great for holding jewelry. But drop in a small rock of crack cocaine—which police say the small bags are often used to hold—and the innocuous item becomes just as illegal as the drug it holds.

Unlike cities such as New York, where glass or plastic vials are the containers of choice for crack, users in D.C. tend to favor the small bags, according to police who work in the narcotics field. For years, users purchased the bags at small mom-and-pop stores just like the one Charles owns. Once police and local officials caught on to the underground market, however, they banned the sale of bags. Certain tradespeople, like jewelers, are exempt from the ban.

But some say the law has only made the secret market a bigger secret.

Charles, for one, isn’t selling. Not just because it’s illegal, he says, but because he doesn’t want to attract the sort of customers who might be shopping for the tiny bags. “I don’t want that type of clientele,” says Charles, a round man with a full beard who hardly fits in the cramped space behind the counter and the bulletproof plastic shield. “We just don’t want to bother with that stuff.”

It used to be that small plastic bags were just small plastic bags, meant for holding legal things, like nails or fishing hooks or beads. That was back before crack hit town, when drugs like heroin and marijuana were sold in brown paper bags or bigger plastic ones.

When crack first showed up on D.C. streets, it was usually packaged in vials that likely came from dealers in New York, says Mark Christopher Stone, a detective in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Major Narcotics Branch. Although locals could buy the empty vials from stores that sold them for perfumes or scented oils, D.C. customers apparently didn’t like the containers used by their Big Apple counterparts.

Stone says police still come across the occasional vial, but they’re mainly used by big-time dealers working in nightclubs. Some pushers use the vials for PCP, says Stone. Almost everyone else, including some heroin and traditional-dope dealers, uses the bags. They’re cheaper, more convenient. And unlike glass vials, they don’t break if you drop them. It’s also simple to hide the bags in a hurry. “[They’re] easier to consume if you’re being caught,” says Stone. “It would certainly be a little rough to swallow that vial you have in your hand.”

Small bags, like vials, were initially available only at larger stores or markets. Soon, however, small neighborhood-store owners realized they could make quick money from selling the bags. So they became a new brand of dealer. Instead of stocking the bags on the shelves next to the Doritos and Pepsi, they usually kept them behind the counter until someone made a special request. To win business from drug dealers with a little flair, they also offered the bags in a variety of colors and decorated with all kinds of symbols, such as Adam and Eve or the Mitsubishi car logo. Crack dealers used the bags to distinguish their products.

In 1995, Eydie Whittington noticed empty bags littering a parking lot near her home at Alabama Avenue and 23rd Street SE. “I thought, There’s a lot of jewelry bags. Who’s selling jewelry?” she recalls.

Whittington, the Ward 8 D.C. councilmember at the time, had gathered a group of neighborhood kids to act as youth advisers during her tenure on the council. They clued her in on the bags. “They were like, ‘Ms. Whittington, you don’t know. Those are for drugs,’” she says.

They also told her that dealers could get them at most neighborhood stores. So Whittington decided to go undercover. She traded in her power suit for jeans, sneakers, and a baseball cap she wore with the bill facing backward. She swaggered a little and went into store after store in search of the bags. Joined by staff, police, and some of the kids, she found stores all across town that were selling. “They just had a market going on here,” she says.

Whittington pitched the idea of banning the bags to her council colleagues in the summer of 1996. Some argued that the bags served legitimate purposes. But in July, they passed an amendment to the existing paraphernalia law that outlawed the sale and possession of plastic bags measuring 1 inch by 1 inch or smaller. According to the law, individuals found guilty of possessing bags, with the intent to use them for drugs, can be jailed for 30 days, fined $100, or both. Store owners can lose their business license and face penalties of six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. There are added penalties for previous convictions and selling to minors.

Stone says police officers appreciate the effort. The law, along with their follow-up police work, has discouraged some store owners from selling the bags. But police and local attorneys are too busy dealing with arrests for actual crack sales to deal with a parasitic market, so the new law has resulted in few charges, says Stone.

“I’ve never seen anyone brought in for that,” says Ed Shacklee, a supervising attorney at the nonprofit legal-defense group D.C. Law Students in Court. “I think unless you can show intent, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere. I don’t think you can walk up to anyone in the street with a zip-lock and arrest them.” To prove intent, cops usually produce a certain type of evidence—crack—that obviates any need to prosecute on plastic-bag charges.

In other words, Whittington’s bill, although well-intentioned, hasn’t brought the crack market—or the bag market—to a screeching halt. “People are always crying out for something, and you do what you can,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who supported the bill. “I’m not sure how effective it was.”

Evans staffer John Ralls is a little more blunt. “I always thought it was kind of a goofy bill,” he says.

Besides, Stone says, crack dealers who can’t get their hands on the bags will still find some way to peddle their product. He and his colleagues have found dealers wrapping rocks of crack in foil or plastic wrap, or hiding them in medicine bottles. Some people even store the rocks in discarded metal caps from beer bottles. They fold the metal around the rock so that it’s protected and hidden in case the crackhouse is raided. “With crack, anything can be used,” says Stone.

When I head out to shop for myself, I don’t have much luck finding small plastic bags at the store just down the street from Charles’ shop—right along Georgia Avenue in a part of town police say is usually bustling with drug sales. Keykey Bank, an employee at C&J Grocery & Deli, says they don’t sell the bags at her store and haven’t in the two-and-a-half years she’s worked there.

Down the street, another store owner says he used to sell the small bags about three years ago but quit when a police officer told him he was adding to the decline of the neighborhood. “I live in this area, and I kinda saw that,” says the store owner. “If they thought I was contributing to the sales of drugs by selling bags, I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

The store owner, who asks to remain anonymous, says he used to purchase the bags in bulk from a wholesale company in Pennsylvania. He could buy a bulk bag of 10 packs (each holding 100 small bags) for a couple of dollars, and then sell each smaller pack for $5, making about $48 profit for each bulk bag. “It’s good money,” he says. “I do miss the money.”

I figure maybe I’m picking the wrong stores, so outside, I ask around. A guy who tries to sell me a watch in a red-velvet case says I should just keep my eyes open for someone selling them along the street. I wait and watch, but I don’t see anything. I ask a scruffy-bearded middle-aged man in a plaid shirt, who fumbles with his cigarette, if he has any suggestions. “You mean like for weed?” he asks. I pause. “The small ones,” I say. “Um, like for crack.”

He gives me a sly look before asking: “You’re not out here trying to get anyone in trouble, are you?” Bingo. He must have something. I shake my head.

It turns out he’s a friendly guy, but terrible at giving directions. He leans to ask advice from some friends sitting in a beige four-door car that idles next to us. “Oh, I forgot about that place,” he says as he stands again.

He suggests a store at 13th Street and Otis Place NW but says I’ll have to make a special request to the cashier. “You got to kinda pull him aside,” he says. “Just be cool,” he says as I leave.

A few days later, I walk to the recommended corner. There’s only one store around: the Thirteenth Street Market. It’s clean and tidy inside, shelves stacked with bread and cereal and other groceries. There’s a meat counter in the back. I browse a little, but not too much. I’m trying to portray the right image: somebody who’s in there looking for crack bags. I quietly tell the cashier, a thin, middle-aged Asian man, that I need some small plastic bags.

He pauses. “No, we don’t have that,” he says.

“Are you sure?” I ask, trying to play it cool. He shakes his head again.

“Someone told me I could get some here,” I say, giving him my best conspiratorial look.

He pauses again, then reaches to a shelf above the counter and pulls out a thick pack of bags. They look a little big. “Do you have any smaller ones?” I ask. He shakes his head side to side. I decide I’ll measure later, not wanting to break my act. “How much?” They’re $5. I nod. He rings them up, along with my iced tea, and loads everything into a brown paper bag.

I don’t open the bag until I get back to my office. I’ve committed no crime, because I have no plans to use the bags for crack. But I can’t fight the illicit feeling.

Back in my cubicle, I open the bag and spread the goods out on my desk, a stack of simple, shiny bags. They would be ideal for sandwiches for very tiny people. I use a ruler to measure the bags. They’re small, but still 2 inches by 2 inches, which is, technically, too big to be illegal. Shoot. I count the booty: 49 sets of two, for a total of 98—two shy of what I assumed would be a pack’s worth.

On the other hand, that gives me an entirely different reason to call in the fuzz: I got ripped off. CP

More from WCP