"Do you guys have any of those rose pipes?" I asked.
"Two dollars," the clerk said, already reaching under the counter for a four-inch glass tube the diameter of a ballpoint pen and capped at one end with a thin slice of cork. Inside the tube was a chintzy yellow flower the size of a pinky nail on a green plastic stem.
"And a Chore Boy."
"One dollar," the clerk said, pulling a Chore Boy copper scouring pad from the same place under the counter. To transform the gewgaw into a crack pipe, remove the cork and flower from the tube and stuff a shred of scrubber into one end to act as a filter.
As an experiment, WW went to 13 convenience stores last week asking for rose pipes. Four stores sold them to a reporter. While that may be old news to the street-savvy, it's apparently unworthy of police attention: A couple of bucks and the right passwords can get pretty much anyone who can stagger into the right convenience store the implements they need for a fix.
"I sell this stuff. People buy it. But what they do with it, I don't know," says Friendly Food owner Amin, who would not give his last name (state records say it's Douraghi). "What they do with it is no concern of mine."
The Chore Boy is kept under the counter so it won't be stolen, he says.
Selling the rose tubes isn't a crime unless police can prove a clerk knew you intended to smoke crack or meth with it instead of, say, giving the trinket as a last-minute anniversary gift.
"Otherwise, it's not illegal," says Portland police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz.
Still, most clerks at the other 12 stores WW visited harbored no illusions about the devices' raison d'être when asked if they sold "the little roses in the glass tubes."
"We don't sell crack pipes here," says Mike Vandever, a manager at Peterson's on Fourth downtown.
But from the looks given at some other shops, it was hard to tell if clerks truly didn't have any idea or if they were just being cautious. Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff's Office officials say their resources are better used fighting more serious crimes.
"We don't have enough officers to investigate all the burglaries that we have," Schmautz says.
But over the past several years, other cities have tried several approaches to curtail the widespread phenomenon, which some argue enables addicts and fuels drug-related crime.
In April 2004, officers in Nashville, Tenn., issued citations for selling drug paraphernalia to clerks at 23 markets after shopkeepers sold roses to undercover officers specifically requesting crack pipes. And the St. Petersburg, Fla., city council passed an ordinance in 2002 banning the sale of certain types of glass tubes.
Ed Blackburn, director of health and recovery services at Portland's Central City Concern, says the stores selling the pipes act as a "support service" for drug activity, but "it's not like you can stop crack addiction by getting rid of stuff like this."
The four Portland stores that sold the tubes to a reporter in downtown, Northeast and North Portland last week besides Friendly Food Mart were Young's Mart, 401 SW 4th Ave.; Killingsworth Food Store, 1616 NE Killingsworth St.; and KC Market, 309 N Killingsworth St.—just a few blocks from Jefferson High School.
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, says there's no way to defend stores that sell to people who ask for pipes. But, he offered, many market owners are "shocked" when they find out about the roses' darker side and proceed to pull them from the shelves.
"The sales are so minor that when you look at the overall scheme, there's no reason to carry them," he says. "It's not a good business decision."
Stratospheric profit margins may be one reason. One online wholesaler of the Chinese-made "Love Roses" currently sells 36-count display boxes for three bucks. Reselling them at $2 each nets a neat 2,300 percent overall return. (Most items in convenience stores have a 30 percent markup, according to Lenard.)
Still, the fuss may seem hypocritical given Portlanders' generally laissez-faire attitudes toward personal drug use, head shops and needle-exchange programs.
Mayor Tom Potter's spokesman John Doussard says the mayor's public-safety policy director will talk to vice detectives to see if the issue warrants more attention.
"The tubes are legal," Doussard says. "And while it may be possible to use them for smoking crack, the same is true for soda cans and a variety of other items commonly sold in convenience stores."