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Connecting drug paraphernalia to drug gangs.

The trail of drug paraphernalia can lead investigators to illicit drugs and drug gangs. The FBI in Baltimore, Maryland, together with the Maryland State Police, U.S. Customs Service, DEA, Internal Revenue Service, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County Police Departments put this concept to the test. From April 1997 through February 2000, these agencies conducted an investigation targeting drug paraphernalia outlets. Known as "Shop Light," this investigation used the outlets as a means to locate, identify, and disrupt (or dismantle) large drug organizations operating in the greater Baltimore metropolitan area.

The Shop Light investigation recognized that two types of illegal paraphernalia stores operated in the region. However, the investigation ignored the first type of store, commonly referred to as "head shops," because their inventory, although illegal, consists of products designed for the end user (addicts) to ingest drugs. Instead, the investigation focused on the second type of store, typically known as "cut or vial stores." Their inventory includes diluents, adulterants, and other products used by drug organizations to measure, separate, convert, dilute, adulterate, and package drugs in bulk quantities that drug gangs then sell.


In April 1997, investigators found 30 businesses in the city of Baltimore engaged in the sale of drug paraphernalia to area gangs. With the exception of just a few of the businesses, the sale of paraphernalia accounted for nearly all of the revenue received by the shops. A review of law enforcement records revealed that police already knew about the stores and, in fact, had raided most of the stores, some on more than one occasion. Nearly all of the prior raids failed to result in meaningful prosecutions, with most of these cases being stetted or nolle prossed. Those that authorities pursued resulted in a fine and probation before judgment. The subjects considered the prosecution merely an inconvenience and simply the price of doing business. Further investigation discovered that even those offenders successfully prosecuted in the past immediately reopened their stores and continued business as usual. Two central themes appeared in the ill-fated cases: first, an apparent lack of understanding of the essential and contributory role played by these stores in the distribution of drugs and, second, an inability to present adequate testimony of the illegal nature and use of the paraphernalia.

Investigators should not consider paraphernalia stores as an isolated industry, separate and distinct from drug gangs. In fact, these stores fill an absolutely essential role with each drug gang that patronizes such a store. For example, a kilogram of raw heroin, purchased in New York for distribution in Baltimore, is essentially worth little more than its cost upon arrival at Baltimore in its raw form. However, when diluted (gangs in Baltimore favored mannitol and quinine), the drug gang will realize an increase in weight to approximately 8 kilograms of heroin at a 13 percent purity level, ready for packaging and sale. At a very minimum, the gang will gross a sixfold return over the cost of the original kilogram.

In short, the paraphernalia industry acts in concert with the drug gangs, facilitating drug distribution by supplying the means to accomplish the cutting and packaging of illegal drugs. This fact is exploited by the shops, which greedily share in the drug proceeds by charging extraordinary mark ups, ranging up to 2,500 percent over the cost of items sold. Evidence from cooperating subjects revealed that shop owners also would advance paraphernalia to their larger drug customers and await payment until after the drugs were sold.

Based upon this view, one objective in the Shop Light investigation was to seriously impact the paraphernalia industry after first using the industry to eliminate multiple drug gangs. The U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Maryland decided to charge the more significant paraphernalia subjects with Conspiracy to Aid and Abet the Distribution of Drugs and Engaging in Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) as more reflective of their involvement than mere violation of paraphernalia laws. This case marked the first use of the CCE statute when the underlying violation involved paraphernalia.


Initially, investigators must determine what diluents/adulterants (cut) and packaging materials drug gangs operating in their territory favor. Debriefing such individuals as drug subjects, sources, and local police officers should provide locations of cut and vial stores from which drug organizations secure their supplies. Another source of information concerning the whereabouts of these stores includes the manufacturers of some of the items, such as gelatin capsules.

Once investigators locate the stores, they should have sources or undercover officers make small purchases of drug paraphernalia to observe the outlets' operations. After analyzing the information obtained during debriefings, investigators then can formulate an investigative strategy. Next, investigators need to answer some important questions.

* How many outlets are operating in the area and when are they open?

* Can investigators identify the largest outlets and does paraphernalia sales account for the majority of their business?

* Should authorities put some of the smaller outlets and those where legitimate business is greater than paraphernalia sales out of the "cut game?" Continuous raids that seize the products each time the store restocks paraphernalia will force it to discontinue the sale of those items.

* Which stores are located in areas that investigators can surveil, including the use of closed-circuit television under certain conditions?

If the answers to these questions reveal that cut/vial shops are in operation, the most important question for investigators then becomes the selection of an approach. The conduct of the investigation can be overt, covert, or both. That is, aggressive (overt) use of the shops involves approaching the store owners and securing their cooperation. Passive (covert) use of the stores occurs when investigators establish surveillance without the knowledge of store owners/managers. And, of course, investigators may choose to approach some store owners, securing their cooperation, while conducting surveillance at other stores without involving the owners/managers.

The Shop Light investigation obtained positive results using both overt and covert approaches. Obviously, cooperation from the store owner/manager simplifies selection of which drug gangs to investigate. Owners can rank their customers based upon the quantities of cut and packaging purchased, as well as the frequency at which they make purchases. If owners do not know the true names of customers, they often know their street names and usually can supply pager numbers, as well as vehicle descriptions. If a gang frequents a store, the owner may restrict certain products for its use alone, such as a specific color of gelatin capsule or small plastic resealable bags bearing a specific stamp. By offering special pricing discounts or restricted packaging, a cooperating store owner may predict the arrival of certain drug subjects, thereby making surveillance more productive.

Regardless of the approach, the objective remains the same, to follow drug dealers to their "safe" or "stash" houses where they store drugs, weapons, cash, documents, and other items of value to the investigation. The most compelling reason for monitoring paraphernalia stores is that the drug dealers themselves are indicating a recent receipt of raw drugs by making purchases of paraphernalia. Following the paraphernalia will lead investigators directly to the nerve center of the gang. Experience gained in Shop Light determined that drug gangs do not stockpile or keep inventories of diluents and packaging, rather they purchase those items on an as-needed basis. Investigators found that this paraphernalia resupply, on average, occurred on a 2-week cycle, timed with the purchase of raw drugs.

Overt Approach: Owner Cooperates

Investigators can obtain the cooperation of some store owners for economic reasons. Some will prefer to assist investigators as a means to continue reaping the profits from their business, rather than face closure, loss of income, and criminal charges. However, absent prior contact indicating that a paraphernalia shop owner will cooperate, investigators first should make a case against the store before "quietly" approaching the owner away from the business. Indeed, the case against the store and owner already may exist, for the most part, by a drug subject currently cooperating with investigators. Moreover, investigators should substantiate statements relative to the store owner's knowledge of the drug dealer's use of the products by a consensual covert recording in the store. The store owner's cooperation is more likely forthcoming if the individual believes that investigators are ready to raid the business.

Covert Approach: Owner Unaware

In this approach, investigators conduct surveillance of customers away from a cut store using an arbitrarily applied factor, such as following anyone carrying an agreed-upon size bag or box from the store. Investigators can use this approach only when drug paraphernalia sales account for nearly all sales made from the store or if the paraphernalia sales can be readily distinguished from legitimate sales (e.g., if the only legal merchandise in the store is tires or bicycles). Because no one within the store is assisting investigators, establishing surveillance without detection poses the largest problem. The Shop Light investigation employed remote-controlled "pole cameras" to relay activity at the shop to a monitoring site. The monitor would then broadcast to surveillance units the physical and vehicle descriptive information for individuals meeting the agreed-upon prerequisite.

Shop Light investigators determined that even when some shop owners learned of the surveillance, they were powerless to do anything about it. They could not warn their customers, fearing a loss of profits, and they could not complain to authorities because they were attempting to create an air of ignorance as to the actual use of the products.


Experience has shown that where members take the package of paraphernalia is the central hub (safe house) for the gang. Here, the gang stores significant amounts of drugs, cash, and other such items as weapons and records. Surveillance of that location will identify the hierarchy of the organization, including many individuals not involved in the actual street sales of drugs. The only people allowed into this site while the drugs are being prepared for distribution are the most trusted members of the gang.

Probable cause to raid a gang's central hub or safe house must be drawn from facts that investigators develop after identifying its location. This occurs primarily to protect the technique of ongoing surveillance of the cut shop for future use against other gangs. Further, most judges will not consider following a package from a store, even a known cut shop, sufficient probable cause to issue a search warrant in the case of the covert surveillance. The affidavit would expose the cooperation of the store owner/manager in the overt method. Normal investigative procedures will develop the probable cause necessary to raid the safe house.

During Shop Light, investigators frequently developed probable cause to support a search warrant by retrieving trash containing packaging wrappers for paraphernalia discarded from the identified safe house location, intercepting the delivery of drugs from the stash house when transported to a worker at a site where the drugs were sold, and stopping departing vehicles a distance away from the house if a legal reason existed. In many instances, investigators developed the requisite probable cause to support a search warrant in a matter of hours after identifying the gang's safe house. Some of the surveillances identified subjects of ongoing investigations conducted by other agencies. Shop Light investigators contacted officers from these agencies who then assumed investigative responsibility from the Shop Light team at the safe house. In each case encountered, the investigating agency had not previously identified the location.

As a cautionary note, while conducting the initial surveillance away from the cut store, investigators must not get too aggressive. It is better to lose the subjects than to needlessly expose the surveillance. The subjects will return to the store on future dates to purchase additional diluents/adulterants and packaging, and investigators might have better luck with the surveillance at that time.


After using the paraphernalia stores to locate and eliminate as many gangs as deemed worthwhile, the final action should be to close the shops. Depending upon the number of stores and the evidence collected against each, authorities will have to decide between federal or state prosecution. Criteria used in deciding which venue to use for the Shop Light investigation included--

* the prior criminal history of the store owner;

* the assets possessed by the store owner;

* the amount of business in paraphernalia conducted by each store and legitimate versus illegitimate sales proceeds;

* whether a store was involved in retail, wholesale, or a combination of sales;

* whether the owner exercised control over other stores, including material stocked or prices charged;

* whether weapons were seized from the business;

* whether surveillance of subjects away from a store produced a prosecutable drug case; and

* whether the owner conducted regional/national sales via mail order or Internet advertising.


The Shop Light investigation resulted in the arrests of approximately 80 significant drug dealers. Investigators seized multiple kilograms of heroin and cocaine, weapons, cash, and vehicles usually within hours of the first sightings of the drug dealers. Twenty federal indictments of drug paraphernalia distributors, four of whom were charged with the minimum mandatory 20-year CCE violation, were handed down along with 25 state indictments of other drug paraphernalia distributors. The investigation also closed 30 Baltimore area businesses engaged in paraphernalia sales, a California chemical wholesaler specializing in the national distribution of diluents and adulterants, and an importing company that distributed diluents along the east coast of the United States used in selling 40,000 pounds of heroin at street-level purity with a volume of drug sales approaching $1 billion. In addition, Shop Light resulted in numerous spin-off drug investigations to include international subjects importing drugs into the United States.


The Shop Light investigation offers a technique that other law enforcement jurisdictions may desire to implement. The approach represents another proven method that agencies can employ in the battle against drug distribution. A major benefit of using this technique is that it produces instant identification of the upper echelon members of numerous drug gangs and identifies the gangs' principle operating locations in a minimum of time without relying upon unpredictable informants. Concentrating on the trail of drug paraphernalia leads to those who traffic in such illicit substances, provides a means of uncovering illegal drug operations, and shows those involved in these criminal activities that no aspect of the drug trade will be safe from the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies dedicated to ridding society of the scourge of drug abuse.

RELATED ARTICLE: Paraphernalia Items Sold by Baltimore Cut Stores







Vitamin B blend


Asteroid Rock, Bolivian Rock and Comeback




Ascorbic acid

Miscellaneous Items

Scales (electronic and mechanical)

Strainers and sifters


Glassware (e.g., bongs and rose stem tubes)

Detox pills and drinks

Capsule-filling trays

Heat-sealing machines

Stash safes

Pipe screens

Single-edged razor blades

Protective equipment (e.g., breathing masks and gloves)

Packaging Components

Gelatin capsules

Vials and stoppers

Jugs and screw caps

Small resealable plastic bags

Glassine envelopes
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Article Details
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Author:Rosario, Efrain A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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