Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Methland by Nick Reding

According to several former agents, back in 1987, there was deep institutional ambivalence within the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) towards methamphetamine. Meth was seen as a biker drug, strictly falling under the purview of losers who didn't have enough financial sense to put together a large-scale operation. Who could imagine the business being built by two lowly coke-dealer brothers in the part of L.A. called the Inland Empire, or that this business would be connected with a kind of narcotic principate in places like Ottumwa, Iowa?

Only one person, it turns out: Gene Haislip, the deputy assistant administrator in the DEA's Office of Compliance and Regulatory Affairs. Haislip knew that large amounts of ephedrine, which was imported in bulk to make nasal decongestants, were being redirected to the Amezcua organization with no oversight. Ephedrine processing took place in only nine factories around the world, all of them in India, China, Germany and Czech Republic. To Haislip the narrow processing window posed a perfect opportunity to siphon off the meth trade; all that was required was the cooperation of those factories, along with the pharmaceutical companies that depended on the ephedrine that made them. What Haislip proposed in 1985 was a federal law to monitor all ephedrine imports into the United States.

The DEA's proposals were subject to long, withering debates and years of compromise. Haislip had to bow to pressure from both Democrats and Republicans alike not to raise the ire of pharmaceutical lobbyists. In particular, Haislip's bill came to the attention of Allen Rexinger, who was in the employ of a trade group called the Proprietary Association on behalf of the pharmaceutical company Warner-Lambert. By the time Attorney General Edwin Meese III presented Haislip's bill to Congress in April 1987, five years had passed since Haislip had initially imagined nipping meth production in the bud. Meanwhile the Amezcua cartel had spread throughout California and the Desert West, and had linked up with Lori Anderson's Stockdale Organization in Iowa, which was now well on its way to producing its own industrially manufactured P2P meth.

The language in Haislip's bill had been drastically altered as well, allowing for the drug to be imported in pill form with no federal regulations whatsoever. All that meth manufacturer's had to do would be to legally buy pill-form ephedrine in bulk and crush it into powder- a small, added inconvenience. What Haislip had imagined as an early answer to a still-embryonic drug threat instead became both a mandate and a road map for meth's expansion.

Haislip, though, was not done trying. By 1993, he was moving to close the loophole that his earlier bill had created, writing new legislation to limit imports not only of ephedrine powder but of pill's, too. The bill passed and seemed to produce immediate dividends: the DEA intercepted 170 metric tins of illegal ephedrine pills in eighteen months, reducing by a large chunk the available methamphetamine in the United States. The problem was that Haislip repeated his earlier mistake and left a loophole that allowed pills containing pseudoephedrine to remain unregulated despite the fact that meth could be made from pseudoephedrine. The loophole was actually the direct result of intense lobbying by Allan Rexinger, who proudly characterized his involvement by saying that he had "pulled the plug" on DEA. IN fact, pointing traffickers to pseudoephedrine was the biggest favor that anyone could have done for makers of meth; it set the stage for fifteen years (and counting) of arguably the worst period in American narcotic history.

Still, Haislip wasn't done. In 1995, he proposed a bill stipulating that any company wising to sell more than four hundred tablet of pseudoephedrine at a time would have to get a license from DEA and would have to keep records of its sales.This time, it was not Allan Rexinger who came to the aid of the big drug companies; it was Senator Orrin Hatch, then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It wasn't until the spring of 1996 that Hatch and Haislip finally agreed on acceptable language for the bill: vendors of pill-form pseudoephedrine would be subject to DEA licensing and bookkeeping unless those pills were sold in the now-ubiquitous clear-plastic containers with aluminum backing. Hatch's logic, it seems, was that the naroco-empire built around methamphetamine would crumble in the face of the tamper-proof blister pack.

Again, the failure of the Combat Meth Act of 2006 is the direct result of lobbying related to the pharmaceutical industry. The guiding philosophy behind the Combat Meth Act was to lessen crank production by monitoring the sale of cold medicine nationwide. The DEA gave Congress three stipulations for doing so successfully. One, the means of monitoring would have to be federally mandated, as opposed to being left up to individual states. Two, pharmacies would need to track sales via computer, rather than handwritten logs. Three, the DEA insisted that pharmacists computers would need "stop-buy" language built into their monitoring programs- meaning that if a customer who has already purchased a monthly maximum of Sudafed tries to buy more, the computer would automatically prompt the pharmacist to disallow the sale.

This time, it wasn't Allan Rexinger's Proprietary Association that objected to the key elements of the anti-meth legislation; it was the National Association of Retail Chain Stores ( acronym: NARC) representing the five major pharmaceutical drug chains in the U.S.: Target, Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreens and Rite-Aid. In the end, Congress rejected the "stop-buy" language and allowed handwritten logs. More important, Congress resisted DEA's pleas that the law's interpretation be federally controlled. Instead Congress decided to make the Combat Meth Act more of a guideline than an actual mandate, leaving specific interpretations to state governments. This effectively laid the law bare to the powerful NARC lobby. Meanwhile, the law's leading advocates and negotiators- Republican Congressman Mark Souder and Senator Diane Feinstein declared the legislation a groundbreaking blow to meth.

1 comment:

  1. 1987, the year that Cargill cut wages at its Ottumwa meatpacking plant from $18 an hour to $5.60 with no benefits, Lori Arnold was selling a pound of pure, uncut crank for $32,000. This meant that with the very first ten pounds produced in her superlab she had paid off the $100,000 initial investment in equipment and chemicals and had cleared a profit of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, or over a century's worth of median wages for an Ottumwa adult that year. Meanwhile, she was still buying ten pure pounds at a time of Mexican dope from California, at $10,000 a pound, which she then sold for three times the price, again making nearly a quarter of a million dollars every time one of her runners returned from the West Coast. Of course her distribution networks in those days were far more transparent , vulnerable and intimidating to DEA enforcement than those of the four great Mexican Cartels which cover the U.S. from Coast to Coast today. And there is no reliable way to judge just how extensive their network is or how many users and addicts exist in this country today. Some agents insist that compared to the trade in methamphetimines, the cocaine trade is a side-line, used as a stop-gap measure while meth manufacturers adjust to the changing conditions related to the availability of the chemicals used in its manufacture.

    "Methland; The Death and Life of A Small American Town" by Nick Reding, Bloomsbury, N.Y, 2009