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Published April 06 2012

Up in smoke: Retailers retooling or closed after Moorhead pipe ban

MOORHEAD - A sign in the window of Pyromaniacs in downtown Moorhead, a controversial shop that shuttered its doors after a new city law cracked down on pipes that can be used to smoke pot, says the store is closed for remodeling.

For Pyromaniacs and a handful of similar stores in Moorhead, it was not the interior that needed revamping after the pipe ban went into effect more than four months ago. It was the business model.

The ban, which passed on Nov. 28 and went into effect a month later, outlawed items deemed to be drug paraphernalia – wares that at least five stores in the city were selling in the past year. Only two of those five stores are still open: Mellow Mood and Mother’s, both of them downtown.

Like Pyromaniacs, Discontent, the colorful building on Main Avenue near Fourth Street, is also still closed. Owner Tom Tepley, an outspoken critic of the ordinance, is carefully weighing his options as to what comes next after spending the past several months unsuccessfully fighting the measure.

In February, a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Discontent against the ban was blocked by a judge. A few days later, a local petition campaign to get the issue to a public vote that Tepley helped organize was rejected by the city because of invalid signatures.

Tepley said this week he plans to convert half of his store into a screen-printing T-shirt business called Just 4 You, while also repainting the exterior of the building. One possibility for the other half of the building is a tobacco sampling shop, for which he has already installed a ventilation system.

Though he’s nearing a new business model that could comply with the ban, Tepley is still not shy about saying he’d like to see the ordinance be tried in front of a jury at some point.

“Everybody in the state of Minnesota that has ever been in front of a jury about a pipe case has always been acquitted – nobody’s ever lost,” he said.

Getting to that point, though, would mean breaking the law, which Tepley said he doesn’t want to do.

“I’m not going to purposely break the law,” he said.

Instead, he hopes to make a final decision for his business soon, which he hopes will bring an end to the controversy. After putting so many resources into the issue for the past few months, he’s just not sure how much more fight he has left in him.

“I’m not a young man, either,” he said. “I don’t need to get my Don Quixote suit on and go fight windmills.”

Regardless of what route Tepley goes, it seems likely that he’ll soon join Mellow Mood and Mother’s, both of which opted to restructure their inventory to be in compliance with the ban.

At Mellow Mood, the effect of the ordinance is evident: Display cases that were once filled with colorful and stylized glass pipes that are now banned instead hold different varieties of hookahs and tobacco pipes.

An employee at the store declined comment on Friday.

Mother’s, meanwhile, hasn’t been as strongly affected by the ban, said owner Brady Bredell, because only a small percentage of the store’s inventory was affected.

“Post-ban, things haven’t really changed a lot. Sales are pretty much the same,” said Bredell, who also founded F-M Freedom Fighters, a group opposed to the ordinance. “So, we plan on remaining in compliance to the ban.”

This is an encouraging sign, said Police Chief David Ebinger, a major advocate of the ban during its discussion period,

“We’ve seen no paraphernalia for sale, and we appreciate the cooperation of the businesses,” Ebinger said.

And though Ebinger has said the ban wouldn’t necessarily lead to a decrease in drug use in Moorhead, he said he’s noticed a lack of paraphernalia concerns in the community since the ban took effect.

Others say it’s too soon to judge the ban’s effects, such as Moorhead resident Sandy Torgerson, a supporter of the ordinance.

Torgerson said she thinks the ordinance could eventually have a positive effect on the city through curbing the use of illegal drugs, but that would be more of a long-term effect.

“Over a period of time, you’ll notice it,” she said. “Down the road, we are going to notice an improvement in our city.”

Mark Altenburg, one of the three city council members who voted against the ordinance, said he did so because he felt the state law on drug paraphernalia was sufficient.

Altenburg still believes the council spent too much time on the issue, but he’s interested to see just how the ordinance could affect the city down the road.

“We’ll see what happens with our crime rates, our drug use,” he said. “That’s the important thing we’ll have to measure – how this has an effect on our community in the long run.”

Although business owners have so far been cooperative, Altenburg acknowledges that the future of the issue is by no means certain.

“If any of the shops decide to test the law, or if it goes in front of a jury … when you get in front of a jury, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, referring to the result of the trial last month of Andrew Leikas, the Mellow Mood owner.

Leikas, of Portland, Ore., was accused of selling synthetic marijuana, but his trial ended in a mistrial after jurors were unable to reach a verdict. Prosecutors have indicated they plan to

re-try the case.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535