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By SHARON TUBBS
© St. Petersburg Times,
They are the owners, managers and clerks of some neighborhood convenience stores.
Across the country, some who run franchise gas stations and mom-and-pop stores have been criticized for peddling for around $2 an item that is often used -- whether or not they know it -- as a crack pipe.
What they have been selling are glass tubes, 4 inches long and the width of a ballpoint pen, with corks closing each end. Inside sits a fake rose with a bud as small as the nail on a pinky toe. They're called "rose tubes" or "love roses."
The use of rose tubes as crack pipes remains a secret between store workers and addicts, one that is unknown to those unwise to the ways of the street. The outsider assumes the rose tubes are meant to attract the impulse buyer who picks up a chintzy gift for his sweetie.
But for addicts, the buy is anything but an impulse. Addicts go to stores looking for rose tubes, calling them "stems" -- street talk for crack pipe.
Critics have had some success getting the items out of stores. Rose tubes, which share counter space with cigarette lighters and key chains, have officially been deemed drug paraphernalia in Michigan and Chicago. In Milwaukee, two district attorneys successfully lobbied merchants to stop stocking them.
St. Petersburg police in 1998 arrested business people who sold the tubes, and many have since stopped. And NAACP president Darryl Rouson has been making news with his crusade to get drug paraphernalia off the shelves.
Still, at least one St. Petersburg store was offering them for sale last week.
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A 46-year-old lawyer, Rouson took the tubes and left his business card. Police later contacted him, and he was charged with petty theft. The store owner said he was unaware what the tubes were used for, and the charges were dropped.
Rouson, a former crack addict who once used the tubes himself, says he's on a mission to get drug paraphernalia out of the community. Some store owners he has approached said they were unaware of the tubes' use. Rouson was not convinced.
"They knew," he said. "Some pretended to be enlightened."
How would they know? Store clerks have called the tubes novelty items that a teenager might buy for his girlfriend or a child for his mother.
Rouson believes they can tell the tube's usual purpose by watching their clientele. The typical rose tube buyer is the man who picks up a 40-ounce bottle of beer and a Chore Boy scouring pad, which is used as a screen, then asks for "a stem," Rouson says.
"To pretend otherwise, that someone is really buying these to give to his girlfriend, is really burying your head in the sand," Rouson said.
Some store owners know exactly what the tubes are used for. In 1998, a clerk in a convenience store in Arizona told a columnist for the Arizona Republic that she knew the tubes were used for crack pipes. Addicts bought them regularly. Apparently to skirt laws that prohibit the sale of drug paraphernalia, employees were instructed not to sell them if the customer specifically asked for a "crack pipe." Buyers learned they could get the tubes by asking for a flower.
In St. Petersburg, Rouson has asked owners of about 15 stores to stop selling the tubes. Most agreed and handed over what they had in stock.
But he wasn't as successful at a store he visited about a year ago. The Amoco gas station at 62nd Avenue N and 31st Street is not far from low-rent hotels and adult video stores on 34th Street.
Last week, clerk Maget Abdul pulled a rose tube from behind the counter and sold it to a reporter -- $2.14 with tax. Asked if he knew the tubes were sometimes used to smoke crack, Abdul said, "That's the first time I heard of that."
Abdul said he had only a few tubes left and did not know why they were kept behind the counter along with age-restricted products such as cigarettes.
The manager, whom Abdul said he knew only as "Zippy," was not available and did not return a call from the Times.
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Police are critical of stores selling the rose tubes, but such cases are hard to prosecute. Lawyers would have to prove that store employees know how addicts intended to use the tubes.
The sale of the tubes "is blatant," Lt. Mike Miller of the Orange County Sheriff's Office told the Orlando Sentinel in 1999. "It's in areas where we have a chronic crack sales problem . . . so they're basically preying on these people with addictions and problems."
Closer to home, in Clearwater, Pinellas sheriff's Lt. Gary Brown said residents complained about a convenience store there a couple of years ago. An undercover deputy went in and asked for a pipe. The clerk sold him one, then offered other items needed to fashion an efficient crack pipe. "He was explaining what to do and saying, "Well, you'll need some of this. . . . ' "
Brown said the department made out a report but doesn't know what happened to the case after that.
Asked whether he thinks clerks know that the tubes are used to smoke crack, Brown said, "Yeah, probably some of them do. But can we prove that? No."
In 1998, St. Petersburg police arrested 14 store owners, managers and clerks for selling rose tubes as drug paraphernalia in an undercover investigation dubbed Operation Rose.
Police spokesman Rick Stelljes said officers had heard from crack addicts that they were getting their pipes from neighborhood stores. And residents were complaining.
Audiotapes made by undercover detectives during the sting, though, revealed that they had done most of the talking while the store clerks said little. A clerk and a store owner told the Times they didn't know what the tubes were used for. Most charges were dropped.
In May, a clerk working at a Mr. Beverage store in Palm Beach County was tried on charges of selling a rose, along with a copper scouring sponge, to an undercover officer. The jury heard an audiotape of the officer asking if he could he buy a crack pipe. The clerk corrected the officer, saying, "We don't call it that. We sell roses," according to the Palm Beach Post.
The clerk's attorney argued that the officer pointed to items in the store during the buy, "leading" his client. The clerk was acquitted.
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In some cities, getting rid of the tubes required officials and residents appealing to store owners before the courts got involved.
In April 2000, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission told merchants in a public release, "Following discussion with several urban enforcement teams, the Commission has determined that "love roses' or "rose pipes' DO qualify as narcotics paraphernalia and any licensee who is using, storing, exchanging or selling them will be cited with an MLCC violation."
The release goes on to describe the rose tube and its common use with the scouring pad. In Chicago, a city alderman and the Rev. Michael Pfleger stood on the steps of City Hall for a press conference, lobbying to wipe out rose tubes. The rose, Pfleger told the Chicago Tribune in 1999, was essentially a ruse, a "backdoor approach" to sell drug paraphernalia over the counter. The tubes are now banned in the city, Pfleger says.
And in Milwaukee, two district attorneys got store owners to sign good-faith agreements saying they would not stock rose tubes and some other possible paraphernalia items, including small plastic bags, also called gem packs, used by dealers to package crack for street sales.
Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said he's certain store owners are willing to work with communities that have problems with the rose tube. The association, based in Virginia, represents owners of about 70,000 of the 120,000 convenience stores in the country.
"It is something of a problem throughout the country," Lenard said. "And it appears that it's in areas (that are) not some of the better areas of the community."
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Marjorie Kelly, editor of Business Ethics magazine in Minneapolis, said rose tubes present a muddy situation for store owners.
"Simply selling a store product that is not used as it was intended, I don't think a store owner has an obligation to stop selling it," she said. Children have sniffed glue to get high, she noted. Should stores stop selling glue?
Also, rose tubes are by no means the only tool for smoking crack. Addicts can -- and do -- use other tube-shaped things, including car antennas and soda cans.
The glass tube is favored for its convenience. It can easily be tucked into a pocket or purse -- "very handy," said Rouson. He believes the tube glamorizes smoking crack -- you don't have to use a dirty old can.
Kelly said store owners must ask themselves why most people are buying a certain product.
"If I was a store owner," she said, "I would ask myself, "Are people buying these mostly for crack pipes? Are nine out of 10 buyers scruffy users who aren't interested in roses?' "
Rouson acknowledges that the tiny rose inside the vial makes it legal for sale.
"How do we appeal to the moral conscience of a store owner once he knows that a legal product is not being used for its intended purpose?" Rouson said. "That's the tricky question."
So, should stores ban everything addicts use for drugs? What about those kitchen scouring pads?
Rouson says the pads obviously have other legitimate uses. "The grandmas buy them and they clean their pots with them," he said. "They clean their skillets."
Though rose tubes may have a benign use, at least some wholesalers are marketing them along with smoking devices.
Jacob's Paradise in California and Animal House Pipes, which lists no location on its Web site, are wholesalers that distribute the rose tube. Animal House refers to them as rose "pipes," and Jacob's calls them the "wild rose small," or item No. 99-WR1. The companies also sell other smoking pipes, such as the water pipe and the "essential oil pipe."
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Many stores in St. Petersburg have stopped selling rose tubes, but people still ask for them. They ask inside the Chevron on 34th Street, as well as the nearby Exxon. And about twice a week, people come into the Little Food Mart on 31st Street and ask for "the little tubes," store manager Yong Park said. None of those stores sell rose tubes.
Park said he had heard a year or so ago they were used for drugs.
Gordon James Knowles, an assistant sociology professor at Hawaii Pacific University, researched the crack cocaine scene in Honolulu's Chinatown while studying for his doctorate in 1996. He learned from addicts that they bought "crack kits" from convenience stores. He went to see for himself. For $8.50, Knowles says, store workers pulled out a brown bag with a 4-inch glass tube and some copper mesh.
The tube had no rose, he said. And the kits were always stashed under the counter or some other hidden location.
"Legitimate businesses are shown to have capitalized on crack addiction by marketing and distributing drug paraphernalia related to crack cocaine consumption," Knowles wrote in "Deception, Detection and Evasion: A Trade Craft Analysis of Honolulu, Hawaii's Street Crack Cocaine Traffickers," a paper that was later published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.