Walk around the public-housing eyesores of Potomac Gardens or the Arthur Capper dwellings in Ward 6 and you will find the telltale signs of drug dealing: groups of sullen young men inroomy leather coats guarding selected intersections. But look down for a moment and you’ll notice an even more ubiquitous indicator: Strewn among the sidewalk trash is a colorful array of tiny plastic zipper-seal bags—just big enough to hold a few rocks of crack cocaine.
The bags are part and parcel of the drug trade, a handy, easily concealable method of conveyance that makes the product visible while protecting it from the elements. And while it’s illegal to sell drug paraphernalia like crack pipes, the crack bags are usually just a few steps away at the friendly neighborhood convenience stores in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Councilmember Eydie Whittington (D-Ward 8) thinks providing that kind of convenience to the capital’s kingpins is out of line. In her first piece of legislation since taking office, Whittington introduced a bill Oct. 9 to ban the sales of “jewelry bags” in the District. Whittington’s bill would prohibit the sale of capsules, balloons, plastic bags, and envelopes measuring 1 inch by 1 inch or less unless 5 percent of the store’s sales consist of jewelry or related items. The prohibition on bags would be added to the 1992 law that outlawed the sale of most other drug paraphernalia including pipes, bongs, bowls, and coke spoons.
“I see a lot of drug activity in my neighborhood. I have also witnessed that these crack bags are all over the neighborhood,” Whittington explains. “It’s annoying and it’s getting on my nerves. Clearly, the merchants of these items know—or should know—that these bags are being used to store and sell crack. We cannot legitimize the supply of the tools of the drug trade by allowing these businesses to continue to sell items that, in effect, support the dirty business of drug dealing.”
The crack-bag crusade has been an apple-pie issue from the moment Whittington introduced the bill. Just about everybody on the council has lined up to co-sponsor the bill, including Frank Smith, Harry Thomas, Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous, Hilda Mason, Charlene Drew Jarvis, Linda Cropp, and Chairman Dave Clarke. According to spokesperson Sally Weinbrom, Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil fully supports the measure as well—he just didn’t get a chance to read the bill in time to co-sponsor it.
While Whittington seems to believe that regulating the bags might help rub out what is sold in them, other supporters suspect that banning the bag sales won’t make much of a dent in the drug trade. However, they hope the bill will at least prevent corner markets from serving as one-stop shopping centers for dealers. Residents of high-crime areas have complained that instead of selling Pampers and produce in areas shunned by chain grocery stores, corner markets now cater mostly to neighborhood pathology, carrying high-grade malt liquor and, lately, crack bags.
Rob Robinson, Brazil’s executive assistant, says residents also are worried that mom-and-pop markets are becoming co-opted by the local drug rings and serving as congregation points for criminal activity, because they have become convenient in more ways than one. Robinson recently toured some of the stores in Ward 6 with a District building inspector to ferret out the zipper-seal-bag distributors among them. “When a person in the neighborhood with children sees thugs around these stores, they’re going to get upset,” says Robinson.
Robinson’s efforts seem to be paying off; for all their supposed ubiquity, the bags were mighty scarce during a shopping outing last week. While the zip-bag ban is still under consideration, many of the stores targeted in Ward 6 already have stopped selling the bags—or at least they’ve stopped selling them to white reporters from Ward 3. One owner of a store near Potomac Gardens said the police asked him four or five weeks ago to stop selling the bags, and several stores surveyed in Ward 6 for this story claimed not to sell the bags, although the bags’ availability might depend on who is doing the asking.
One afternoon last week, a large man loitering in front of the bustling Normandie Liquors on the corner of 1st and M Streets SE was guarding a large package full of hundreds of jewelry bags that was lying on the sidewalk (presumably so he could disclaim ownership of the bags if questioned by the police). The man and his thin, red-eyed girlfriend helpfully suggested that the bags could be purchased at the “Little Stop” market at 7th and K Streets SE, one of the stores claiming not to sell them.
The H Street corridor in Northeast, a destination point for crack sellers and users alike, has not been targeted by any anti-baggie patrols, and the markets there seem to have an ample supply. For $3 (tax apparently included), stamp collectors, jewelry makers, and local street hustlers can purchase a pouch of 100 tiny zipper-seal bags, in several sizes and colors. Of course, you have to ask for them, because the bags are kept behind the bulletproof bunkers that protect merchants from their strung-out customers.
These covert sales are precisely what irks Whittington the most. She says, “They hide the bags until you ask for them. They’re supposed to be jewelry bags, but if you ask a child on the street they know it’s a crack bag. [The merchants] know it’s wrong.”
Grace Choi, who works in her father’s store at 7th and H Streets NE, says she knew nothing about the council’s latest zipper-seal bag obsession, but says it explains why the innocuous-looking little bags are such a hot commodity in her store.
“We didn’t know what they were for,” says Choi. “A customer showed them to me, and a guy from New York comes down every month to sell them, so I ordered some. I really don’t like selling them, but a lot of people ask for them. They want it is why we have it.”
Jewelry-stand owner She-She Bouvier says she gets wholesale jewelry in plastic bags, and she is concerned that no one alerted the merchants to the proposed bill. “For lack of knowledge, I go to jail?” asks Bouvier, who doesn’t understand why the D.C. Council is spending time and energy banning products easily obtained in Virginia and Maryland. Besides, says Bouvier, “Even drug dealers can use big bags. It’s a big waste of our tax money.”
Bouvier’s store probably won’t be affected by the ban, because more than 5 percent of its sales consist of jewelry and other small items allowed in the legislation. Whittington’s targets are the mostly Asian, family-run convenience stores like the Chois’ that sell bags used to store another precious commodity. Whittington argues in the press release that the ban would give the police more leverage to curb drug distribution by “allowing them to question…store owners who carry a supply of these bags.”
Under the proposed law, merchants convicted of selling those bags would face a maximum prison sentence of six months, a $1,000 fine, or both. At a time when District officials are having trouble finding jail space for repeat crack offenders, it’s doubtful they would make room for the notorious baggie sellers, but the store owners could lose business licenses and certificates of occupancy needed to keep their establishments open.
“It’s only fair that store owners do their part to improve neighborhoods from which they have richly profited,” Whittington said in a press release. “This bill will make these merchants more accountable for the sale of merchandise that festers the disease of drug-related crime in our communities.”
Whittington’s bill landed without much of a splash, receiving almost no media coverage and generating little controversy among the usual guardians of individual rights. And the plastics industry, always quick to trounce fledgling anti-plastic initiatives, seems nonplused by the proposed ban. Jennifer Dills, spokeswoman for the Society of the Plastics Industry, says her group can’t comment on the proposed legislation. “It’s not an issue we’ve been tracking,” says Dills. “We don’t have a policy on that.”
But criminal-defense attorneys—who may end up representing some of the store owners caught in baggie busts—are concerned about the implications of Whittington’s bill. Defense attorney Christopher Warnock, who is a board member of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association and occasionally represents the drug dealer/grocery store customers, says, “We’ve got over 300 murders a year here. Are the police really going to bust people for selling Ziploc? It’s like trying to ban spray paint because of graffiti. It’s just a fantastic attempt to regulate everybody.” Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, says his group probably won’t challenge the baggie ban.
“The Constitution does not contain an anti-silliness provision,” says Spitzer, who adds that courts routinely have upheld laws prohibiting the sale of drug paraphernalia. “I don’t think there’s anything in the Constitution that upholds the right to sell a certain kind of plastic bag,” says Spitzer.