Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

You don’t have a government…

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The lobbyists have a government. And why? Because they have more money to given to politicians than you do. Our current government is a puppet where the strings are money. What we desperately need, I think, is public financing of political campaigns, with no outside money allowed. That would break the lever that Big Business and lobbyists use to move legislation in the direction they want.

From the (must-read) article I mentioned earlier, “How America Lost the War on Drugs“:

It is only in retrospect that these moments – the barrels of ephedrine seized in Dallas, the quiet suggestion that meth had worked its way into the cocaine supply chain – take on a looming character, the historic weight of a change made manifest. Up until methamphetamine, the War on Drugs had targeted three enemies. First there were the hippie drugs – marijuana, LSD – that posed little threat to the general public. Then there was heroin, a horrible drug but one that was largely concentrated in New York City. And, finally, there was crack. What meth proved was that even if the DEA could wipe out every last millionaire cocaine goon in Colombia, burn every coca field in Bolivia and Peru, and build an impenetrable wall along the entire length of the Mexican border – even then, we wouldn’t have won the War on Drugs, because there would still be methamphetamine, and after that, something else.

Gene Haislip, who served for years as one of the DEA’s top-ranking administrators, believes there was a moment when meth could have been shut down, long before it spiraled into a nationwide epidemic. Haislip, who spent nearly two decades leading a small group at the agency dedicated to chemical control, is his own kind of legend; he is still known around the DEA as the man who beat quaaludes, perhaps the only drug that the U.S. has ever been able to declare total victory over. He did it with gumshoe methodicalness: by identifying every country in the world that produced the drug’s active ingredient, a prescription medication called methaqualone, and convincing them to tighten regulations. Haislip believes he was present the moment when the United States lost the war on methamphetamine, way back in 1986, when meth was still a crude biker drug confined to a few valleys in Northern California – a decade before the Mexican drug lords turned it into the most problematic drug in America. “The thing is, methamphetamine should never have gotten to that point,” Haislip says. And it never would have, he believes, if it hadn’t been for the lobbyists.

Haislip was known around the DEA as precise-minded and verbal. His impulse, in combatting meth, was the same one that had pushed the drug warriors after Escobar: the quixotic faith that if you could just stop the stuff at the source, you could get rid of all the social problems at once. Assembling a coalition of legislators, Haislip convinced them that the small, growing population of speed freaks in Northern California was enough of a concern that Congress should pass a law to regulate the drug’s precursor chemicals, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, legal drugs that were used in cold medicine and produced in fewer than a dozen factories in the world. “We were starting to get reports of hijacking of ephedrine, armed robbery of ephedrine, things that had never happened before,” Haislip tells me. “You could see we were on the verge of something if we didn’t get a handle on it.”

All that was left was to convince the Reagan administration. One day in late 1986, Haislip went to meet with top officials in the Indian Treaty Room, a vast, imposing space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building: arches, tiled floors, the kind of room designed to house history being made. Haislip noticed several men in suits sitting quietly in the back of the room. They were lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry, but Haislip didn’t pay them much attention. “I wasn’t concerned with them,” he recalls.

When Haislip launched into his presentation, an official from the Commerce Department cut him off. “Look, you’re way ahead of us,” the official said. “We don’t have anything to suggest or add.” Haislip left the meeting thinking he had won: The bill he proposed was submitted to Congress, requiring companies to keep records on the import and sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

But what Haislip didn’t know was that the men in suits had already gone to work to rig the bill in their favor. “Quite frankly,” Allan Rexinger, one of the lobbyists present at the meeting later told reporters, “we appealed to a higher authority.” The pharmaceutical industry needed pseudoephedrine to make profitable cold medications. The result, to Haislip’s dismay, was a new law that monitored sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in bulk powder but created an exemption for selling the chemicals in tablet form – a loophole that protected the pharmaceutical industry’s profits.

The law, drug agents say, sparked two changes in the market for illegal meth. First, the supply of ephedrine simply moved overseas: The Mexican cartels, quick to recognize an emerging market, evaded the restrictions by importing powder from China, India and Europe and then smuggling it across the border to the biker groups that had traditionally distributed the drug. “We actually had meetings where we planned for a turf war between the Mexicans and the Hells Angels over methamphetamine,” says retired DEA agent Mike Heald, who headed the San Francisco meth task force, “but it turned out they realized they’d make more money by working together.” Second, responding to a dramatic uptick in demand from the illegal market, chemical-supply companies began moving huge amounts of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine out to the West Coast in the form of pills, which were then converted into meth. Rather than stemming the tide of meth before it started, the Reagan administration had unwittingly helped accelerate a new epidemic: Between 1992 and 1994, the number of meth addicts entering rehab facilities doubled, and the drug’s purity on the street rose by twenty-seven percent.

Haislip resolved to have another go at Congress, but the issue ended up in a dispiriting cycle. The resistance, he says bitterly, “was always coming from the same lobbying group.” In 1993, when he persuaded lawmakers to regulate the sale of ephedrine in tablet form, the pharmaceutical industry won an exception for pseudoephedrine. Drug agents began to intercept shipments of pseudoephedrine pills in barrels. Three years later, when lawmakers finally regulated tablets of pseudoephedrine, they created an exception for pills sold in blister packs. “Congress thought there was no way that meth freaks would buy this stuff and pop the pills out of blister packs, one by one,” says Heald. “But we’re not dealing with normal people – we’re dealing with meth freaks. They’ll stay up all night picking their toes.”

By the time Haislip retired, in 1997, the methamphetamine problem was really two problems. There were the mom-and-pop cooks, who were punching pills out of blister packs and making small batches of drugs for themselves. Then there were the industrial-scale Mexican cartels, which were responsible for eighty percent of the meth in the United States. It took until 2005 for Congress to finally regulate over-the-counter blister packs, which caused the number of labs to plummet. But once again, the Mexican groups were a step ahead of the law. In October 2006, police in Guadalajara arrested an American chemist named Frederick Wells, who had moved to Mexico after losing his job at Idaho State University. An academic troublemaker who drove around campus with signs on the back of his pickup truck raging at the college administration, Wells had allegedly used his university lab to investigate new ways that Mexican traffickers could use completely legal reagents to engineer meth precursors from scratch. “Very complicated numerical modeling,” says his academic colleague Jeff Rosentreter. By the time Wells was arrested, the State Department had only just succeeded at pressuring Mexico to restrict the flow of pseudoephedrine, even though Wells had apparently been hard at work for years creating alternatives to that chemical. The lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, Haislip says, “cost us eight or nine years.”

For some in the drug war, it was a lesson that even the most promising efforts to restrict the supply of drugs at the source – those that rely on legal methods to regulate legally produced drugs – remained nearly impossible, outflanked by both drug traffickers and industry lobbyists. The tragedy of the fight against methamphetamine is that it repeated the ways in which the government tried to fight the cocaine problem, and failed – racing from source to source, trying to eliminate a coca field or an ephedrine manufacturer and then racing to the next one. “We used to call it the Pillsbury Doughboy – stick your finger in one part of the problem, and the Doughboy’s stomach just pops out somewhere else,” says Rand Beers. “The lesson of U.S. drug policy is that this world runs on unintended consequences. No matter how noble your intentions, there’s a good chance that in solving one problem, you’ll screw something else up.”

Written by Leisureguy

3 December 2007 at 10:36 am

Posted in Congress, Drug laws

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