A federal grand jury in western Pennsylvania handed up indictments against 27 people as part of "Operation Pipe Dreams," an investigation stretching from Pittsburgh to Phoenix to southern California, Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
Another nine people were charged in four grand jury indictments returned in Des Moines, Iowa, under "Operation Headhunter," which involved paraphernalia marketed nationwide by distributors in Michigan, California and Texas.
In all, 55 people were named in nearly three dozen indictments returned throughout the country.
Federal law makes it a crime to sell products mainly intended for the use of illegal drugs, including such things as bongs, marijuana pipes, "roach" clips, miniature spoons and scales. Those charged with selling and conspiring to sell such items face up to three years on prison and maximum fines of $250,000.
A search warrant in the Iowa case turned up more than $2 million in illegal paraphernalia, authorities said.
Ashcroft said the sale of drug paraphernalia has exploded on the Internet, making it easier for teenagers and young adults to buy it. The items often are disguised as such things as lipstick cases to escape detection and are marketed under code names and symbols.
"Quite simply, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge," Ashcroft said in a statement. "This illegal, billion-dollar industry will no longer be ignored by law enforcement."
The Internet sites go by such names as Smokelab.com, Aheadcase.com and puffpipes.com, according to the Justice Department.
The investigation was led by the Drug Enforcement Administration along with the U.S. Marshals, Secret Service, Customs Service and Postal Inspection Service.
"People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different than drug dealers," said John Brown, acting DEA chief. "They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide."