WOONSOCKET — A campaign that began with the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts has prompted the City Council to pass a new law prohibiting the sale of crack pipes, bongs, rolling papers and other drug paraphernalia near schools.
It all started a few weeks ago, when Ahmad Alhanawi opened the “In and Out Mart” next door to the alternative high school, located at 320 Main St. Principal Robert Pilkington said teachers and students were looking forward to having a convenience store next door to the school so they could make quick pits stops for snacks.
Then he walked in and saw a display case full of ornate glass pipes and other products labeled “for tobacco use only” and he had an abrupt change of heart. Despite the label, says Pilkington, it was plainly obvious that tobacco is the last thing anyone who'd buy such a pipe would consider smoking in it, and it offended him that a merchant would have the audacity to sell them in a location where many of the customers were likely to be schoolchildren.
“I thought our problems were going to be soda and chips, or students wanting to go over and buy ice cream at lunch,” said Pilkington. “I was ready to deal with those issues, but this caught me totally by surprise. They were already barely legal to sell cigarettes – just a foot-and-a-half outside the tobacco-free zone – but to be this brazen with the pipes and whatnot, well, I just thought it was egregious.”
Soon, Pilkington was calling on students and staffers to boycott the store. The protest culminated in a campaign by Beacon Charter School and the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition to propose a new ordinance cracking down on the paraphernalia sales within 200 feet of a school.
There's a lot of slick marketing behind some of these products that make them particularly tempting to youngsters, says Lisa Carcifero, director of the prevention coalition.
“The beautifully-colored pipes, made to look like vases, are quickly adapted by adding a scouring pad or mesh into bongs, marijuana pipes or crack pipes,” she says. “Unfortunately our youth are exposed to this as they reach for a candy bar, gum, or as they approach the check out.”
The law, which allows the police to fine scofflaws up to $500 for repeat offenses, was unanimously approved by the City Council on Monday.
It prohibits the sales or drug paraphernalia within 200 feet of schools, playgrounds, daycare centers and “other facilities frequented largely by children.”
But here's the kicker: Even though the front door of In and Out Mart is just 26.5 feet (Pilkington measured it) from that of Beacon Charter School – the city is still powerless to stop the sales of drug paraphernalia from that location.
“As long as they're in business they're grandfathered in,” says City Council President John Ward. “We can't go back and take it away, but we can make sure it doesn't happen again.”
But Michael Skeldon, Beacon's academic dean, says he's still hopeful the law can be applied to the store because there's some question about whether it opened legally in the first place, before the anti-paraphernalia law was passed.
The store closed its doors just a couple of days after opening and has remained closed since because of some unrelated regulatory problems, he said.
Judy Labonte, a licensing aide at City Hall, said the store was shut down because of structural code violations that are being addressed by the city's building official. But Alhanawi is apparently planning to reopen because he was in the city clerk's office this week to apply for a permit to do business on holidays, said Labonte.
As for retail sales permits, the city does not issue those; that's the province of the state.
Alhanawi could not be reached at a cell phone number listed on his application, which also indicates he is a city resident. The paperwork says he resides in the Veterans Memorial Family Housing Development.
Like Pilkington, Skeldon said he was appalled when he found out what kind of products the store was displaying near gum, candy and other items often sought after by students. Skeldon says he can't help but think the store's product line was driven by its proximity to the school, with its 225-member student body, some as young as 15 years old.
The store, he said, also sold cigarettes, which is permissible within 25 feet of a school under state law. But the cigarettes don't bother Skeldon as much as the drug paraphernalia.
“I'd like to go in there and buy a Coke to get me through the end of the day, but I'm not going to,” he says. “I'm not going to support them as long as they're selling those kinds of products around impressionable minds.”
A number of variety stores in the city sell drug paraphernalia, including glass tubes, ceramic pipes and other colorful gadgets by marking the cases they're displayed in with the tobacco disclaimer. The practice has long been controversial in many communities, including Woonsocket, but the local police say that, the new ordinance notwithstanding, it's legal as long as there is some other legitimate use for the products, such a smoking tobacco.
The store doesn't necessarily have to go out of business altogether to end the paraphernalia sales at the location, says Ward. The law could also be enforced against the store if the business changes hands. Despite the limits of the new measure, Ward says he's still proud of the way students at Beacon Charter School and the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition, led by Lisa Carcifero, handled the situation.
“They were basically a standard variety store with all of what is commonly used as drug paraphernalia but is sold and marketed as being for tobacco use,” he said. “We all sort of snigger and chuckle when we see that because we know what it's used for. They were taken aback by its proximity and they made a statement and decided to do something about it.”