Meth Madness

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Meth Madness

by Ari Armstrong, August 6, 2003

This is an account of "the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Methamphetamine is that drug -- a violent narcotic -- an unspeakable scourge -- the Real Public Enemy Number One!" Use of this drug is "leading finally to acts of shocking violence... ending often in incurable insanity." These facts, "based on actual research," demonstrate "something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace."

"[T]he suppression of the use of methamphetamine and of the forces lurking behind it are the most important jobs [our narcotics departments are] now engaged in... The sale of methamphetamine is even more difficult to detect and halt than the traffic in drugs such as opium, morphine, and heroin... and more vicious, more deadly even that these soul-destroying drugs is the menace of methamphetamine."

So am I quoting today's newspaper? No, I am quoting the 1936 movie Reefer Madness, except I have substituted the word "methamphetamine" for the word "marijuana." Today, Reefer Madness is sold as a "cult classic," and people watch it because it's "unspeakably" funny. Nearly half the people in the U.S. have used marijuana, and so the exaggerations of Reefer Madness are obvious and silly. Indeed, the movie's description of marijuana more accurately describes the film itself: "it's first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter."

There is, of course, a rather significant difference between Reefer Madness and Meth Madness: meth is objectively worse for you than marijuana is. In his book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, Jacob Sullum writes, "Heavy, prolonged use of methamphetamine (like heavy, prolonged use of cocaine) can lead to jiteriness, irritability, and paranoia, all aggravated by the effects of staying awake for days at a time. These symptoms are apt to appear sooner and be more severe when the drug is snorted or smoked... And it was certainly true that some methamphetamine users, albeit a tiny percentage of them, did commit 'unspeakable acts of violence'" (209-210). By contrast, "heavy, prolonged use" of marijuana is most likely to induce sleep or perhaps the enthusiastic consumption of Captin' Crunch.

The anecdotal accounts I've heard square with Sullum's review. I've talked with a few people who have used meth or personally known meth users, and they talk about this sort of paranoia. In all the cases I heard about, though, the individuals soon decided to stop using the drug because they realized it was bad for them. They didn't quit because they got caught or they went to treatment; they quit because they wanted to. Neither the police nor the politicians stopped them from taking the drug, and neither the police nor the politicians helped them quit using it.

Of course, Sullum appropriately contextualizes his analysis -- something politicians, drug-war police, and their sycophants in the popular press don't do. Sullum writes, "The history of methamphetamine also illustrates how a drug's reputed effects may depend on who is using it and how. For decades methamphetamine (Methadrine) was widely used in oral form, along with [related drugs]. These drugs were given to soldiers during World War II, taken by students cramming for exams and truck drivers trying to stay awake on long hauls, and prescribed by doctors for weight loss, narcolepsy, depression, and hyperactivity. Until 1954, amphetamines were available in the United States without a prescription... Contrary to current expectations, the widespread use of amphetamines during [the 1940s and 1950s] was not accompanied by an epidemic of violence. It was not until the mid sixties, following a rise in thrill-seeking, intravenous use of amphetamines, that the image of the paranoid, aggressive 'speed freak' began to eclipse that of the hardworking student or truck driver" (208).

Sullum points out a number of other useful points. Even today, as noted, a "tiny percentage" of users are involved in acts of violence. In those cases, the causal connection is a weak one. The sort of person who stays up for days on end shooting or smoking meth is the sort of person who likely would act irresponsibly even if the drug weren't available. For instance, they also tend to consume too much alcohol -- a perfectly legal drug nevertheless related to massively greater levels of violence. (Remember the U.S. once suffered Alcohol Madness, too.) Unfortunately, some criminals blame their acts of violence on their drug consumption -- and the popular press and the political establishment lap up these excuses like Pavlov's dog.

But, you see, it is not merely the use of meth that's dangerous; it's the manufacture of it! At least pot in your back yard isn't going to explode and kill people! Now we are plagued by methamphetamine DEATH BAGS!

Yes, that's right: "death bags." As B. Scott Bortnick reports in the August 4 Denver Post, "They're called 'death bags,' and law enforcement officials say these methamphetamine lab byproducts are being tossed in some unlikely places across the Front Range." So how many deaths have been caused by death bags? How long is the list Bortnick provides? Well, actually, he doesn't cite a single "death" related to "death bags." However, "Fumes from a suspected death bag overcame a Colorado Department of Transportation worker three months ago when he cleaned out a rest-stop trash container along Interstate 25 near Larkspur." According to "Stacey Stegman, a department spokesperson," "He was very ill. It burned his lungs. He almost passed out and it caused him illness for a month." I'm sure it was a very unpleasant and harmful experience, and we can rightly be angry about the dangerous dumping. But "death bag?" You'd think at least one death could be reported in relation to something called a "death bag." Jonathan Pickett, a detective with the West Metro Drug Task Force, assures us, "The possibility of death is there." I'm sure it is. Just as the "possibility of death is there" every time the transportation worker drives down the highway.

Bortnick adds, "Meth addicts in California and Arizona have died after being overcome by fumes while cooking their product. No such deaths have occurred in Colorado, officials said." But is the situation inside a residence where meth is being produced really analogous to a bag left outside in the garbage? Bortnick's hysterical rhetoric about "death bags" is the sort of horseshit journalism that has no place in a self-respecting newspaper.

It so happens that illegal production of another drug is also plagued by toxic by-products and explosions. That drug is alcohol. Let's call them "death stills." According to one web page, "Death, blindness, paralysis and brain damage were common during Prohibition. This was usually due to lead solder being used in still fabrication or attempts to turn some type of industrial spirits into drinkable whisky. Historically, our old time moonshiners used only lead solder in their stills, so any antique still found in the barn is probably a death trap. Other distilling hazards include explosion and scalding from pressure build up and fire, as well as explosion from ignition of liquid alcohol or vapors. It's about like gasoline in volatility and explosive energy."

As volatile as gasoline! For some reason apparently completely obscure to today's politicians, drug-war police, and lap-dog journalists, the police do not currently spend much time or generate much press running around trying to shut down "death stills." Hmm... Now, I wonder, why could that possibly be?

Lori Moriarty of the North Metro Drug Task Force said something interesting to Bortnick: "There is a lot of this out there, but citizens are not recognizing it yet... It's hard to believe they are not dumped every day, because for every lab we find, there are 10 to 20 we don't." So by Moriarty's rough estimate, the police shut down, at a maximum, 10% of "meth labs." It seems clear her estimate is laughably high. The actual result of Moriarty's job is to ensure methamphetamine -- a drug once sold without a prescription -- is now manufactured only in the most dangerous ways imaginable.

Drug prohibition has produced some other interesting results. Now, instead of growing pot in their back yards, some people are cooking meth in their bathtubs. Hey, at least they're not funding terrorists! We can thank Reefer Madness for increasing the popularity of other drugs. Now, instead of being a drug doctors prescribe for weight loss, methamphetamine is often injected or smoked, and often it is sold at highly potent levels with unknown toxins and impurities. Score another point for the drug war. It is only an added benefit that we get to find "death bags" in our garbage. On top of that, we can now be charged criminally for selling "too many" cold pills or keeping a suspicious-smelling spoon around, and people are encouraged to spy on their neighbors for such things as carpet stains.

If not the specific drug, then at least the sort of drug production was completely predictable. Something similar happened during alcohol prohibition: "[T]he production of moonshine and beer and wine in the home decentralized the making of illegal liquor to such an extent that enforcement became virtually impossible. When bootleg liquor was made in half the homes in the United States, there was no stopping the flood." Of course, alcohol was and is a much more popular drug, so it's not the magnitude of the problem that's at issue. And the ingredients for the illegal production of alcohol were even easier to come by than are the ingredients for the illegal production of meth. Clearly, the main reason meth is today's "scourge" is that the prohibition of other drugs has encouraged the use of drugs that can be produced locally in small quantities. Meth fits the bill perfectly. And if the drug-war police eventually succeed in shutting down a larger percentage of meth labs, those few people intent on abusing drugs will turn to some new alternative or return to the imported drugs (you know, the ones that fund terrorists and international violence).

And then the newspapers can turn their attention to the new (or the renewed) scourge de jour. Ah, blessed drug war -- seller of newspapers, inflator of police budgets.

Sullum recounts a 1996 piece in the Rocky Mountain News that described meth as "the devil drug, a substance so seductive and so destructive that using it is like selling your soul" (209). Of course, this sort of quasi-religious rhetoric has been invoked against many other drugs, including the "demon rum." Some would argue I am surely destined for Hell, given I have nearly two liters of the soul-sucking rum in my closet. (Demonic possession comes with a bulk discount.)

Thankfully, one recent story involving meth was covered fairly well by the Denver Post. On July 17, the Post published an article by John Ingold titled, "Adams meth operation busted: Father of boy who drowned among 5 held." On July 23, the editorial page also reviewed the case.

Ingold begins, "The father of a boy who drowned in an Adams County pond two months ago was arrested Wednesday, accused of running one of the largest meth production operations in Colorado history. William Fred Wagner, 44, was one of five people arrested when the Adams County SWAT team and North Metro Drug Task Force raided Wagner's home in the 8300 block of Ulster Street. Authorities also removed two teenagers from the home, ages 15 and 16."

Ingold describes the previous drowning: "In May, investigators said, Wagner was home when his son, 7-year-old Virgil, splashed into a muddy retaining pond across the street from his house, got stuck in the mud and drowned... The day after Virgil died, the farmer who owns the property [where] the pond sits put a fence around the water."

Certainly this is a tragic case, and we may contemplate the possible connections. To his credit, Ingold did not sensationalize the story, and he asked the right questions: "Moriarty said she couldn't say whether meth was a factor in Virgil's drowning. 'All I can say is, meth users pay more attention to their drug addictions than their children," she said'."

However, Ingold also did not attempt to offer much context. Is there a causal connection between the meth production and the drowning? Possibly. But surely both those things were caused by people living a fundamentally irresponsible life-style. It would be as silly to blame the death on meth as it would be to blame drunk driving on the mere existence of alcohol.

In 2000, 943 children ages 0-14 died by drowning. How many of these deaths had any connection to meth? Probably none or no more than a handful. Virgil might have drowned had his parents not produced meth. It's equally true, for instance, that "alcoholics pay more attention to their drug addictions than their children." Had Virgil's parents been relatively responsible and he had still died, they might have attempted to sue the neighbor, and any news account would have focused on the pond.

The editorial brings to light an important fact: the meth "operation reportedly had been under surveillance for several months before the arrests were made." The writers continue:

Given that Colorado police agencies themselves pushed for a new law that makes it felony child abuse to manufacture drugs around children, it's a shame that police watching the alleged speed operation didn't contrive some way to get the kids away from the site. The law that took effect July 1 was passed because clandestine drug labs have exploded and caused fatalities. Lt. Lori Moriarty of the North Metro Drug Task Force says finding ways to get kids out of such dangerous homes is a priority for the cops, who also must keep this poison off the streets. We wonder if social services workers couldn't have been a bit more observant of what was going on at the Wagner residence during their visits. Perhaps Adams County's threshold for removing children from peril is too low and in need of revision. Bottom line, though, these agencies need to communicate.

The writers make an excellent point, but they don't follow it up well enough, and they fail to muster even one iota of skepticism concerning the policy of prohibition.

Why did the police take so long in their investigation? Is it an accident that the police didn't communicate with social services? I suspect not. If social services had removed the children, that might have tipped off the residents about the pending drug bust. Fewer sales might have been observed, and fewer people might have been busted. It might have been the case that the police were simply waiting until they had probable cause for a search warrant, but again I suspect not. They probably could have moved in sooner, but netting felony convictions is a big priority in these drug busts. After all, as Moriarty admits, the police don't have a clue where most meth labs are located, and about the only way they can find out is to follow one meth user to another.

The Post mentions the new law that increases the criminal penalty for producing meth around children, but the paper fails to mention already-existing child-abuse statutes could have been invoked with respect to meth production.

The Post notes "drug labs have exploded and caused fatalities," but it fails to note this is so because of drug prohibition.

The Post states police "must keep this poison off the streets." But the main reason methamphetamine is poisonous is that it's produced on the black market, a consequence of prohibition. Also, the term "must" implies "can." Yet Moriarty admits the police cannot get meth off the streets. Therefore, it's not the case that police "must" do so. The Post's statement amounts to the sentiment, "We wish very much that police could get meth off the streets." But wishing won't make it so -- it will only result in the continuation of a failed policy.

The film Reefer Madness offers a lengthy explanation of the supposed results of using marijuana. Yet the explanation, while completely inaccurate with respect to marijuana, quite aptly describes the impacts of America's drug war addiction:

"[T]hen come dangerous hallucinations... fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances -- followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions... leading finally to acts of shocking violence, ending often in incurable insanity."

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