WASHINGTON - One District of Columbia Council member wants to severely hamper the sale of 1-inch-square resealable poly-ethylene bags, even though they once were used exclusively by jewelry and electronics manufacturers to package their delicate wares, In poor D.C. neighborhoods, these bags have become the package of choice for peddlers of the highly addictive crack cocaine. The 1-inch-square variety, just large enough for a $20 rock of crack, is sold in some neighborhood convenience stores for about $4 per 100.
Councilwoman Eydie Whittington was alarmed at the number of discarded bags on her district's sidewalks and the ready identification of ``crack bags'' by children. She introduced legislation that would amend the district's Drug Paraphernalia Act of 1982 to include ``capsules, balloons, envelopes, glassy plastic bags or [zipper] bags that measure one inch by one inch or less and other containers used, intended for use or designed for use in packaging small quantities of a controlled substance.''
Whittington represents Ward 8, one of the southeast quandrant's most troubled sections.
The measure has as yet seen no action in the Council.
No American bag manufacturer contacted by Plastics News admitted to producing the bags in the small sizes addressed in Whittington's legislation.
James Burke, extrusion manager for bag manufacturer KCL Corp. of Shelbyville, Ind., said his company has been approached to make the 1-inch-square bags, but does not.
``I'm not sure why we don't make them, except to say it would be a great tooling cost to change from making larger bags. There is a better profit in larger bags'' used to package electronics and jewelry, he said.
One packaging distributor in Milwaukee contends zipper-sealed bags of such a small size are manufactured only outside the United States.
``The one-by-one is not produced in this country at all. They are made in China or Taiwan, and in Canada. They never have been made here; the size is too hard to produce'' as a durable product, said Bruce Wantuch, quality and technical services manager for Associated Sales & Bag Inc. of Milwaukee.
``In this country, the common practice is to spot-weld the corners of the zipper, as that is a weak spot and tends to pop the side seam. These don't have that.''
Wantuch said his company sells between 100,000 and a quarter million zipper bags a month in an industry he estimates conservatively at $100 million annually.
Wantuch said 1.5 inches square and 1.5 by 2 inches are the smallest sizes produced in the United States. These areused widely by the jewelry industry, he said. Further, industrial customers package screws and bolts in them, electronics customers use them for electrical switches and the textile industry uses them for packing spare buttons, he said.
``There are dozens of people like us'' who distribute the bags, said Wantuch. The small, zipper bags ``are one of 200 commodities we deal in and one of our most lucrative.''
Zipper bags, first introduced commercially in the 1950s, can be made in two ways: The polystyrene or polypropylene sheet and zipper can be extruded together, then heat sealed up the side, or the zipper and the bag can be made separately, then welded together.
Burke also believes the smallest bags are imported from Asia.
``They're coming in that size in polypropylene now,'' he said.
Michael Battle, Whittington's legislative aide, notes, ``We don't see anything else they could be used for. If the package is an inch square or less, we will presume that these bags are being used as drug paraphernalia.''
Whittington succeeded Marion Barry, Washington's controversial mayor, who held the Ward 8 council post for a while after his 1991 misdemeanor conviction for drug possession.
Barry regained the mayorship in 1994.
The crack bag case recalls a similar circumstance, in which a Philadelphia injection molder was stopped from manufacturing tiny rigid vials in the early 1990s. The reason: Federal authorities could find no reason for manufacturing the vials outside of providing packaging for crack cocaine in small doses.
Battle realizes it may be legally difficult - and possibly unconstitutional - to require businesses selling the tiny bags to prove that 5 percent of their revenue comes from their legitimate use - such as to package jewelry. Such proof, under the measure, will exempt retailers and wholesalers from prosecution under the drug paraphernalia law.
Whittington's press secretary, Lisa Gibson, emphatically said the measure is not considered a slap at the plastics industry.
``Plastics are useful in so many things every day. We do not want to make it a plastics issue.
``These bags are indicative of a larger problem. In poor neighborhoods, children can identify these bags as crack bags immediately. In better neighborhoods, children haven't any idea what they are,'' Gibson said.