Harlem Park resident R. Howard Hill was thirsty and decided to run into a corner market two blocks from his home to grab a soda. While he was in line, he heard the customer in front of him ask for a product that caught Mr. Hill by surprise: a package of very small plastic bags with resealable tops.
Mr. Hill knew that the bags are commonly used by drug dealers, who call them "seal-a-meals," to package cocaine for street sale.
"And later, if you see him at a corner, he will sell it to you under that same name," Mr. Hill said.
The fact that what he considered to be drug paraphernalia was being sold so openly angered Mr. Hill, a grants manager with the small business development center of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development.
"It just sort of left me uncomfortable, with a bad feeling about what was going on," he said. It was an indication of "the deterioration of the area in which I live," he said.
Chong Woo Lee, who owns Lee's Market at Mosher and Calhoun streets in West Baltimore, said that when he began selling the bags, he did not know what they were for.
"I asked some people, 'What are you going to use them for?' They say, 'coin bag, coin bag.' " He said some customers would put a penny in a bag and wave it, as if to show how they intended to use it.
L "But they are used for dope," Mr. Lee said he learned later.
"You never can tell who might be a stamp or coin collector," said Mr. Hill, "but I think otherwise, and I think any intelligent person can come to the same conclusion."
In fact the bags, which come in sizes as small as 1/2 -inch by 1/2 -inch but usually are 1-inch by 1-inch, do have a legitimate use. Officer James Rogers of the Western District said the bags and tiny vials are designed for shipping computer chips.
"And you know good and well we have no computer manufacturers here," he said.
Because the bags have a legitimate use, Mr. Hill faces a major obstacle in halting their sale: The store owners are doing nothing illegal.
"The law is clear," said Howard Gersh, chief of the narcotics division for the Baltimore state attorney's office, citing the Maryland state code.
"The mere possession or selling of an object . . . in and of itself is not illegal because the object is used for a number of other purposes," he said.
Narcotics detectives said the resealable bags and other paraphernalia are sold in small grocery stores in drug-plagued neighborhoods throughout the city.
"You can buy whatever you want," said Officer Edward Bochniak of the Eastern District narcotics squad. "It's outrageous."
Officer Bochniak said that many of the stores also sell bags of glass vials, used for packaging cocaine. Other outlets, fronting as record or health food stores, sell large lots of empty gelatin capsules and mannitol, used as a cutting or filling agent for cocaine. It is all legal.
There is little police can do.
"You can charge these people with possession if you can prove they're using it to manufacture or distribute" drugs, said Sgt. James Cappuccino of the Northwestern District narcotics unit. "But in and of itself, if I were to stop someone on the street and they had mannitol in their pocket, it's actually illegal to possess only in conjunction with narcotics."
The only option left to Mr. Hill and others who oppose the sale of the bags is to persuade store owners to stop voluntarily. The strategy worked two years ago in a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.
Selwyn Ray, then a community organizer in Park Heights, led a successful campaign to persuade merchants not to sell the bags, which they had taped to the bullet proof glass separating the merchants from their customers.
"It's just a matter of asking," said Ronald D. Billy, who owns a local cleaners and was at the time president of the Pimlico Merchants Association. It was Mr. Billy who approached Mr. Ray about the problem. "We just made enough noise with it that they just took them out."
What amazed Mr. Ray -- and continues to amaze him -- was the fact that such activity goes on so openly and few people oppose it.
Drug trafficking has "become so commonplace that suddenly the paraphernalia can be sold under your nose," said Mr. Ray, who now runs programs for young men at the city Health Department. "It's like their brain isn't working in that frequency anymore."
Mr. Hill knew that sales of the bags had been stopped in Park Heights, so he was surprised to see them sold in his neighborhood.
"I thought we had been through this before," he said.
Mr. Hill's first move, at the advice of Mr. Ray, was to meet with the police commander of the Western District, who told him the bags were legal and the police could do nothing to to stop the practice.