TIMES MAGAZINE (MAY 2004)
Chris Hill started CHILLS Tobacco in his father's garage
at the age of 22. When yearly sales hit $3 million, the National
Republican Congressional Committee named him "Republican
of the Year" in Florida. Then a team of Iowa federal
agents flew south to raid his home, his store and the factory
where he manufactured CHILLS pipes, and Chris Hill went to
BY DAVID BIENENSTOCK
Chris Hill is trying to make up for lost time.
He shifts gears in his Porsche convertible, accelerating through
light traffic on the highway between Tampa and his home in
Sarasota. The car is not new, but it's new to him. He sold
his last Porsche a year ago, right before reporting for duty
at a federal prison camp.
Shouting over the noise of the revving engine and the salt
air whipping above his head, Chris explains that he'll never
really make up for lost time, or any of his other losses.
He's been out of prison for six weeks and is trying to build
a new business from the ashes of the last one. He's separated
from the mother of his children and trying to piece together
a new family from the one that was torn apart. And he's making
progress. Putting the past behind him like the yellow lines
on the asphalt.
Chris Hill started young. His first entrepreneurial
venture consisted of selling sunglasses through classified
ads in Rolling Stone magazine. After breaking even,
and while still in high school, Hill moved into pushing high-end
foreign cars at a personal markup, operating as a "kitchen-table
broker" in the pre-Internet '90s. Over the phone, no
one knew his real age.
And then, after a few years shuffling through community colleges
and false-start business plans, he finally had the million-dollar
idea—and he had it while stoned.
"I was in Wisconsin on my way to a boys camp where I
was going to be an instructor in French, water-skiing, and
Native American studies. I was smoking with a friend, and
I'll never forget his pipe. It was a 1 3/4" by 12"
purple Matrix waterpipe," Hill recalls, fondly. "My
friend told me they were sold all over the country and that
he paid about 24 bucks for the one we were smoking. That's
when I looked at it, turned it all over, and said to myself,
'Man, I bet I can make this thing for about $4.' And it turned
out I could make it for a little less."
And so CHILLS was born, started up in Hill's father's garage
with $4,500 in student loan money. The young man at the helm
practiced a simple mantra: sell, sell, sell, spending 19 hours
a day developing, sourcing, and manufacturing alternative
smokeware (waterpipes, hookahs, handpipes, glass, ceramics,
etc.) and pushing his brand. The start-up soon grew out of
the garage and into a condemned warehouse by the interstate,
then moved-on-up again to downtown Sarasota. With a loan guarantee
from the federal government's Small Business Authority, Hill
eventually bought out two neighboring buildings and began
wholesaling smoking apparel nationwide.
In its last year of US operation, CHILLS had annual sales
of over $3 million dollars, 35 full-time employees, a 401K
retirement plan and a simple formula for success. Despite
the dubious (read doobie-us) nature of the merchandise,
the CHILLS business plan was anything but radical.
"We prided ourselves on three things: product quality,
customer service and same day shipping." Hill explains.
"It's those three things that grew the company."
The highlight of Chris Hill's business career came at the
1999 Inc. 500 awards, where Inc. magazine included
CHILLS in its annual list of the fastest-growing private companies
in the United States. He attended a black-tie ceremony in
Vail, accepting the award from Colorado governor Bill Owens.
For Hill, who decided to forgo an acceptance at the Sorbonne
in Paris to stay on with a then-fledgling CHILLS, the award
was his personal "college graduation."
Chris Hill never saw it coming. He'd read
the drug paraphernalia laws, including a 1994 Supreme Court
decision, and strove to keep CHILLS in compliance to the letter.
Drawing his personal and business philosophy from the novel
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rayn, the young entrepreneur
saw himself as engaged in "activism through commerce,"
objectively creating the world he wanted to live in and refusing
to acknowledge any false limits on his freedom. Unfortunately,
federal agents in the Southern District of Iowa read a different
book, and then threw it at him. The government compiled an
extensive case against CHILLS based on sales to headshops
in Iowa, charging Hill with heading a conspiracy to sell drug
paraphernalia. The legal standard: He sold pipes to stores,
and they sold those pipes to someone "likely to smoke
The raids came less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks
of September 11. Dozens of federal agents were involved, including
a team of DEA agents flown down from Iowa for a taxpayer-funded
trip to the Sunshine State. While their colleagues scoured
the country in a desperate manhunt for Al-Qaeda "sleeper
cells," these guys were busy protecting America from
In the end, Chris Hill copped a plea. Threatened with sentencing
possibilities that ranged from 20 years imprisonment to the
death penalty, and feeling under funded in his effort to buy
justice through the courts, Hill agreed to 14 months in the
minimum-security prison camp at Saufley Field Air Force Base
in Pensacola, Florida, plus probation. In February 2003 John
Ashcroft's Justice Department expanded the war on paraphernalia
with Operation Headhunter and Operation Pipedreams, charging
55 people (including Tommy Chong) following raids on pipe-selling
businesses from Pennsylvania to California.
“Today’s actions send a clear and unambiguous
message to those who would poison our children,” White
House Drug Czar John P. Walters boasted following Pipedreams.
“We will bring you to justice, and we will act decisively
to protect our young people from the harms of illegal drugs.”
And so the Drug War rolls on—unchecked, unbalanced,
and out of control.
"I was in prison for 266 days, leased out at 12 cents
an hour to a private company which was contracted by the Navy
to provide grounds maintenance at Pensacola Naval Air Station,"
Hill says. "And every day, on the way to work, and on
the way back to the prison, I had to pass at least one headshop
and two billboards for other headshops selling the same pipes
I went to prison for selling. They're all over the country.
So is it illegal? I guess so, I went to federal prison for
You've been an entrepreneur since high school. What
My motivating factor is always money. That's why I do business.
What prevents someone else from doing what I did is fear of
risk. I've never understood it.
What was your lifestyle like as the business grew?
I was living in a $300-a-month apartment with my fiancée,
and I kept it that way for a long time because I needed to
be frugal. You never know what's going to happen. I wouldn't
even add a $200 drill press unless I could make the money
back in thirty days. I'm a risk-taker, an entrepreneur and
a business-builder, but I'm also conservative. If I hadn't
been conservative I'd have lost my house by now.
When did you get involved with the Republican Party?
I've been a Republican since I was 18. It's supposed to be
the party of small government, individual rights and economic
conservatism—although we all know that's not true anymore.
There really isn't a party that represents those ideals. [Prior
to my arrest] I was getting ready to get involved in federal
politics. Members of the traditional tobacco community approached
me at the Retail Tobacco Dealers Association tradeshow about
making a run for congress in the seat that Katherine Harris
Do you still consider yourself a Republican?
Yeah, I guess I'm an idealistic Republican. It'd be nice to
see the party go back to what it's supposed to be.
Will you vote for George Bush in the 2004 election?
I’m forbidden from voting.
No. I don't think I'd vote for anyone. I never thought I'd
say that. The reason felons can't vote is that it prevents
a very large political force from being represented. Felons
can't even associate with other felons if they're on probation,
and everybody's on probation. Somebody needs to organize all
of the convicted drug felons and their families into a political
action committee. Prison has become an out-of-control industry,
and it's a growth industry that's also a drain on the economy.
So how did you end up with an award from the National
Republican Congressional Committee?
I really don't know. I was named honorary co-chairman of the
Business Advisory Council for the National Republican Congressional
Committee. Then I was named Small Businessman of the Year
and Republican of the Year in Florida, which they award to
20 or 30 different people. I was invited to play golf with
four congressmen the week before I went to prison. When they
found out a convicted felon had won the award, they said,
"Oh, it's based on donations, and this and that."
I donated $200 to the Republican Party in 1996 for some random
thing, and that's the only time I've ever given any money
to any political party. So it's not a donation-based issue.
What kind of safeguards did CHILLS implement to stay
out of trouble?
We didn't sell pipes we thought there was a chance of smoking
crack with. We didn't sell scales. We didn't sell baggies.
We sold our products only to licensed tobacconists. We even
did our own internal investigations. We would call retailers
on the phone and trick them, asking, "Do guys sell drug
magazines, do you sell bongs, this and that.” We closed
out our biggest account plus 200 others during Christmas of
2000. I was trying to regulate myself so the government wouldn't
come in and do it for me. I was always worried about the other
guys in the business, who were doing stupid things and looked
like they were promoting drug usage. I thought there was going
to be problems with these companies that would lead to problems
for me. But because we had the biggest brand name in the country,
that was what brought the attention to us. I think they took
me down because we had the best chance of winning in court.
When did you suspect there could be a legal problem
for your business?
I knew in March, six months prior to my arrest, that there
was something happening in Iowa relating to CHILLS. I didn't
engage the US Attorney's office because I thought they would
have an investigation, find out how we market ourselves and
do business, and leave us alone. It was the most naive thing
I've ever thought in my life, except for thinking the dude
renting a room in my house when I was in prison wasn't fucking
my fiancée. Obviously I was wrong on both counts.
What was the first official contact you had with law
"Chris Hill, I'm here from the DEA, and I have a warrant
to search your home." And my jaw dropped a little bit,
because there were 25 people standing outside my front door.
And then, "We also have a warrant for your arrest."
And that's when my jaw hit the floor. They asked me to step
outside, and I said no. I was in shock. So basically, they
just moved me aside, and people flooded in and started going
through boxes, drawers, and drilling holes in the walls. Everything.
You don't know humiliation until you've changed diapers with
Did they treat you like a hardened criminal?
The main guys treated me with respect. They didn't kick in
the door or put their feet on my throat. But the guys that
were with them, I don't know what to say about them. The agents
from Iowa were in Florida for about ten days. I saw one of
them at the water park with his family. He wasn't a guy I'd
ever dealt with; he was just there at the raid. Everyone was
at the raid: postal inspectors, the DEA, US Marshals, state
police, local sheriffs, and at my store there were city cops—these
are city cops who I know, who have come in when the burglar
alarm is going off and I gave them pipes.
What did you tell your children?
Nothing. I played it off like these guys were my friends.
The kids were young enough that they didn't really get it.
But the time I was gone is going to have permanent repercussions
on my children. And the fact that I was betrayed and abandoned
by their mother while I was inside, that's going to be the
worst part on the kids—growing up in a broken home.
You were busted in Florida by Iowa agents. Where did
you appear in court?
Des Moines, Iowa. I went to Iowa seven or eight times, all
at my own expense. Fly into Iowa. Fly into Iowa. Fly into
Iowa. For preliminary hearings, to meet with my attorney,
or to try to work out a plea. We came up with Operation Panacea,
which was our cure-all. It was a motion to dismiss based on
exemption from federal law, but they never even let us test
it. They said try it, and we might charge you with the drug
kingpin act (a.k.a. continuing criminal enterprises), which
includes a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, up to the death
penalty. At first my attorneys laughed and said there's no
drugs in this case. But then they read the law: Technically,
paraphernalia was a drug crime, I had five or more employees,
I had three or more related transactions, and I probably made
a substantial income. Those are the factors that determine
if someone is running a continuing criminal enterprise; therefore,
I could have been convicted as a drug kingpin. And I think
if they had gotten that conviction, those guys would have
gone to bed that night without losing a wink of sleep.
Do you regret accepting a plea bargain?
I wanted to go to trial so bad. My situation could have been
the test case, but really, I had no choice. If you ever see
a piece of paper that says: The United States vs. Your Name,
just plead out. Because they will crush you. I wanted a fair
trial, and if I had gotten one, and lost, I could have taken
the maximum sentence of 36 months. My lawyers thought we had
a 60 to 70 percent chance of winning.
I begged the store owners [who carried CHILLS products] to
send me $100 each. I was willing to risk it all, but I couldn't
afford the right legal team. I couldn't get the publicity
I needed. CHILLS was the test case, because we were a company
that was pushing paraphernalia for legitimate uses. Obviously
we know people are smoking pot with it, but we strived to
stay in compliance.
Does it bother you that people were smoking pot out
of your pipes?
No, it does not bother me. It's their own concern.
On a personal, medical, environmental, industrial and recreational
level, I think marijuana is God's gift to the planet. I smoked
marijuana every day for 10 years, up until the day I was arrested.
I hope the law changes someday, so I can smoke again.
Did smoking pot have any ill effect on you?
No, not at all. It certainly didn't lower my sperm count.
And it didn't de-motivate me while I built a multimillion-dollar
How long between the arrest and when you went to jail?
Fourteen months. That was hell. Really depressing. I was sleeping
all day. Gained a bunch of weight. I didn't care about losing
the business, because I can build a new one. I cared about
the 35 people who lost their jobs, 29 of them overnight, for
nothing worse than working hard. And I tried to spend as much
time with my children as I possibly could.
Was there any sense of relief after your sentencing?
No, there was no relief. I was relieved that my two co-defendants
didn't get any prison time, ex-employees who hadn't worked
for me in over three years, and who were living in Atlanta
and Denver when they were arrested. That was my relief. But
I was also terrified for my children. I'm a father who can't
spend a day without my kids.
Did you explain things to them before you went away?
No, they were only three and one. Even now, they think I was
at school the whole time. Someday, I'll explain what happened,
but what am I going to tell my kids? Why did I go to prison?
What did I do wrong? Do I tell my kids that the government's
bad? I can't say that. Hell, by the time my kids are old enough
to understand, pot might be legal. I don't believe that, but
How did you prepare for prison?
I always said that if I ever got sentenced to prison I was
going to start doing push-ups immediately [laughs]. But I
didn't start doing anything until I got in there. I don't
know how I made it through that first day. I was still smoking
cigarettes. I remember the first time I tried to run around
the track; it was a half-mile track and I made it about halfway
around, everything went black, and I saw stars. Then I lost
40 pounds, hit the weight pile, and started running three
miles a day.
What crimes had the other inmates committed? How did
they react when you explained why you were in prison?
Everybody's in prison for drugs. We had everybody from street-level
dealers to Escobar's money launderers. I was housed in a kind
of barrack with about 100 other guys in one room. When I walked
in, everyone was totally helpful. And I was shocked, because
there was some thug-looking guys in there. When I told them
about my case, they either didn't believe me, or there was
just utter shock, because it shows that we're going the wrong
way in the drug war. If the authorities are going after manufacturers
who make pipes that people might smoke pot out of, what are
the chances that they're going to change the drug laws and
let these people out of prison?
You underwent a physical change while incarcerated.
Was there a corresponding mental change?
Yeah, I lost a lot of my idealism in the way this country
is run. But mentally, I became a stronger person. I think
I can do anything, nothing fazes me. And I learned patience,
Do you think you can get your idealism back?
I think I can. Individuals can still create change in this
country. It's not usually the masses that create change, it's
one person—one good activist, or one good entrepreneur
is worth a thousand normal people. We live in a great country,
where change is possible. I don't believe there's some corrupt
evil force that's driving our government. I think it's a government
made up of individuals, and we have some of the wrong individuals
What was the first thing you did when you got out?
Well, I ate at Subway, which wasn't exactly my ideal situation.
Then I went home to my children. That was the only thing I
really cared about. I spent the first three days with them
24 hours a day, and I couldn't have been any happier. And
then I ate snow crab.
What was your reaction to the Pipedreams and Headhunter
busts that followed the CHILLS case, particularly the attention
given to Tommy Chong?
The media should have been responding when I got arrested
and was stalking CNN. I thought people would be up in arms,
but nobody cared until Tommy Chong got involved. The media
just responds to something it finds amusing and interesting,
they don't address the fundamental problem that companies
are being held responsible for third-party use. They don't
realize that this is a stepping stone. The government is already
arresting club owners because somebody sold a dime bag in
their club. You can't prevent it. You can't stop people from
doing things. It has to be their individual responsibility.
If you could talk to Tommy Chong right now, what would
you say to him?
I'd tell him that his nine months will go quick and that he's
lucky to have a good woman by his side. He'll probably have
a good time. I've hung out with him a few times, got high
with him a few times—nice guy. But he was asking for
it. If anyone was asking for it, I guess it was him.
Do you think the people who busted you really believe
this is the solution to some drug problem?
They know this isn't the solution, or even part of the solution,
to resolving either a real or perceived drug problem in the
United States. It's something else. And I don't think they're
bad people, or scumbags, or evil—these same guys protect
us from real criminals. The system has just created these
careers that may not actually contribute anything to the American
people. I don't think they do. The War on Drugs is a joke.
I don't know why they fight it so vehemently. I don't know
why there's no congressional oversight of the DEA. They keep
getting bigger and bigger budgets, while there's more and
more drugs that are cheaper and cheaper.