Friday, June 4, 2010

The Way it Is Sold

The Way it Is Sold

On May 4, Washington, D.C., Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham was quoted

in the Washington Post as saying, “People don’t feel marijuana is dangerous,

but it is because of the way it is sold.”

A doctor prescribes Desoxyn for a ten-year old patient diagnosed with ADHD. The prescription is filled routinely at a large chain drugstore like Walgreens or CVS at the chain’s standard price of $4.00 for a month’s supply of a generic drug. No one worries about the strength or purity of the drug because it was manufactured and distributed by a factory certified as following Best Manufacturing Processes and inspected by the FDA. Some of the pills will be turned over to the school nurse who will see that the child takes them when scheduled during school hours.

On the same day in the same city, a teenager tried to buy some crystal meth from a street dealer. When a police officer approached, the seller drew a gun and tried to run. The shoot-out ended with both the dealer and his young customer dead. When the police lab analyzed the drugs, they were found to be contaminated with several toxic substances. A search of the dealer’s motel room found a portable meth lab and some of the dangerous substances used in its manufacture.

The first of these stories is the outline of events occurring in the United States each week. The second is a composite of factors common in episodes also occurring daily in this country. The factor they have in common is that they both feature the same drug: methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine was invented almost a century ago, and from about 1940 until the mid 1960s was one of the leading prescription drugs. The amphetamine-like stimulants (amphetamine, methamphetamine, and Ritalin) as a group were the drugs most often prescribed during this period. They are grouped together not only because they are chemically similar, but because users cannot normally tell them apart. Today these drugs are primarily prescribed for attention spectrum disorders, extreme obesity, and some sleep disorders. Some doctors also prescribe them for the off-label use of increased mental functioning, or “brain-boosting”. Professor Rasmussen estimates that, counting these three drugs together and combining legal and illegal users, the percentage of the population using them today is roughly the same as in their heyday of the 1960s.

Meth for illegal use comes from three sources. A large amount, although only a small part of the total, is diverted from legal sources. Some of that comes from pharmacies, either through fake prescriptions or through burglaries. Holders of legitimate prescriptions provide a larger share by giving or selling some of their drugs to friends or through children rifling their families’ medicine cabinets.

By far the largest part of illegal meth is smuggled into the country. Most of that comes from small, unregulated factories in Mexico, but a portion comes from South and Southeast Asia. Mexican meth is a smaller trade than is the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin from that country, but it still contributes to the overheated competition between the drug cartels now causing so much damage in that country.

A very small part of the illegal meth in this country is produced in small “cookers” for local use. Many of these are set up in temporary locations like motel rooms and produce less than a pound of the drug. However, these cause damage greatly disproportionate to the amount of meth they produce. The people operating them are usually untrained in chemistry, trying to follow unreliable recipes they have gotten from the Internet or from other cookers. Their attempts often catch fire or explode, and the dangerous chemicals used and produced are thrown away so that intense local environmental damage results. Cleaning up these small disasters is tedious and expensive and exposes the responders doing the cleaning to great personal danger. If all of these small meth cookers were to disappear, the drug supply would not be appreciably diminished except in a few small isolated localities, but the dangers and harms to the surrounding communities would disappear with them.

Nothing about this portrait of a drug market should surprise anyone. It could also apply in detail to the market for alcohol during Prohibition.

Just as with Desoxyn, a legal market for potable alcohol existed. Doctors (including dentists and veterinarians) could prescribe up to a pint a week, and many drugstores became nothing but outlets for medicinal brand name whiskeys. Walgreens went from 20 stores to 525 during the decade. A family could have up to ten gallons a year of sacramental wines, and priests and rabbis were vested with authority to procure and distribute it. Since no official registry for rabbis existed, Jewish congregations sprang up in surprising neighborhoods with unexpected ethnicities. Farmers (meaning any householder) could “preserve” up to 100 gallons of their fruit crop by fermenting it. The market for grapes exploded, with California vineyards making more money shipping grapes than they had ever made selling wine.

Most of the market for alcohol was met by imports, although the primary source was Europe, not Mexico. While some of this liquor was the reliable brands people had long purchased, most of it was counterfeit: flavored grain alcohol with fake labels pasted on. One German company even marketed Black and White Horse Scotch.

And local cookers poisoned and polluted their neighborhoods as well. The South had a long tradition – dating back to the eighteenth century – of making moonshine. Their bootleggers stepped up production to meet the demand with sub-standard product, burning down the forests for fuel for their stills and dumping their wastes in the streams.

In the cities small distilleries presented the same kinds of problems that meth cookers create in rural areas eighty years later. Bootlegging gangs would pay tenement dwellers to operate small stills in their apartments. The five to fifteen dollars a week those stills brought in was a major incentive to these amateur operators, but these operations caused real problems to the neighbors in these crowded dwellings. The constant odors and heat and the continuing foot traffic were bad enough, but the frequent fires and explosions in the firetrap buildings became a serious public safety concern.

The sad fact is that the same stories can also be found two hundred years earlier when the British Gin Acts of the 1730s tried to impose prohibition on London. Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same experiment but expecting different results. Our current attempts to prohibit sales of drugs can only be seen as insane.

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