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Patrick Springer, Published July 27 2011

Discontent owner not afraid of court battle over Moorhead drug paraphernalia ordinance

MOORHEAD – Tom Tepley calls much of his inventory smoking accessories. The police use a different term: drug paraphernalia.

The difference over semantics could move to the courtroom if the city passes an ordinance to tighten its ban on drug paraphernalia.

In an interview with The Forum on Tuesday, the day after the Moorhead City Council gave preliminary approval to the ordinance, Tepley said he would prefer to come to an agreement with the city.

But he’s not afraid of a court battle, and has hired a lawyer who has successfully challenged Minnesota’s drug paraphernalia law.

“I’ll fight back,” he said. “I didn’t get to be successful by laying down.”

Tepley, who first got into the record business when he opened a Mother’s Records store with a partner in Moorhead in 1977, has worked only one job his entire life: driving a cab for a time when he was in college.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” he said.

Tepley, who grew up in Pipestone, came to Fargo-Moorhead in the 1970s to study art at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

In the 1980s, Tepley broke from his partner and went into the record business with his brother. After nine months, to boost sales, he started selling assorted pipes and other smoking accoutrements.

He mostly quit selling music in 2005, except for selling vinyl records, as consumers embraced downloading songs from the Internet.

“In 2005, when the whole music industry collapsed, we almost went bankrupt,” he said.

Then, demand increased for glass pipes and ornate pipes, hookah tobacco, and other smoking alternatives.

Today, a fifth of Tepley’s Moorhead sales come from alternate tobacco or smoking herbs, he said, with more than half of his sales coming from pipes and other accessories.

“I can’t survive without selling smoking accessories,” Tepley told council members Monday.

Five or six stores in and near downtown Moorhead, mostly along Main Avenue, sell water pipes and other smoking accessories – a business sector that could be wiped out if the ordinance passes, Tepley said.

If that were to happen, he said, about 30 store employees would lose their jobs. Tepley said he deals with a dozen suppliers in Clay County, who also would take a hit.

The pipes and other accessories have many legitimate uses, and only become drug paraphernalia when used illegally, he said.

“This industry is very different,” he said. “We sell collectible pieces. Some of these are worth hundreds of dollars.”

If the dispute lands in court, Tepley said he is confident he will be able to prove, given the scope of his inventory, that he is selling smoking accessories, not drug paraphernalia.

“Is it my intent to sell drug paraphernalia?” he asked. “No. I sell all sorts of things. I can prove that’s what I sell.”

In the past, Tepley said he has voluntarily withdrawn items from sale when asked by police. He said he stopped selling a smoking herb because police said kids were buying it and reselling it as marijuana.

In fact, he added, alternate smoking herbs have become a large market, he said. “They’re entirely legal, chemical free.”

Tepley and a lawyer who spoke on his behalf, Randall Tigue, say the more restrictive ordinance would penalize people whose smoking preferences don’t involve cigarettes or conventional pipes and tobacco.

In March, Tepley stopped selling what he calls herbal incense and what many call synthetic marijuana, a product that he said doubled his business before he stopped selling it.

Meanwhile, the demand for hookah tobacco is so strong that Tepley’s considering getting a distributor’s license and becoming a wholesale supplier.

Throughout his 35 years in business, Teply’s guiding philosophy, whether promoting concerts, selling records or peddling skateboards, has been satisfying a market.

“Everything,” he said, “has been on customer demand.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522