Why Cops Can Make Meth and You Can't
by Ari Armstrong, September 20, 2003
If you or I make methamphetamine, a drug that used to be sold over the counter to late-working students and overweight housewives, and the Authorities hear about it, the police will bust down the door with machine guns drawn; force us to the ground; ransack our homes; strip us naked outside and hose us off; take away our children forever; sell our homes and keep the proceeds; and send us away to prison for years, all at taxpayer expense, of course.
But if we are the police, it is perfectly okay for us to manufacture methamphetamine. And this dual system of justice -- one set of rules for you and me, another set of rules for the Authorities -- is a symptom of a police state.
Of course, there are exceptions. The police still aren't supposed to sell methamphetamine to the public without permission. No, the Authorities can hand out dangerous drugs only under certain circumstances, such as when school children get bored with their classes, military pilots need to fly long hours, or the police are working undercover trying to entrap people. In Drug War Addiction, Sheriff Bill Masters describes the case of another Colorado sheriff's department that was busted for distributing meth around Western Colorado. In most cases, those enforcing the laws still have to follow them.
But the new trends are disturbing. The police are perfectly able to do all sorts of things for which you or I would get punished by the Authorities, so long as they're doing them with the blessing of the (even higher) Authorities.
The September 4-10 Westword contains two extraordinary pieces of journalism, both about meth. David Holthouse wrote "72-Hour Party People: Meth: It's Not Just for the White-Trash Crowd." Alan Prendergast wrote "Toxic Shock: Starting a Meth Lab Takes Little Skill or Cash. The Cleanup is Another Story."
Prendergast's story relates, "'Any moron can make meth,' says [Denver Detective Marty] Vanover, who's cooked batches under strict quality controls in a DEA lab. 'It takes a chemist to make it safely'."
The same story reports, "To learn more about how the contamination spreads and potential health risks, her [North Metro Drug Task Force commander Lori Moriarty's] task force is now working with National Jewish Medical and Research Center to study the effects of a controlled cook [of methamphetamine] at an old farmhouse in Adams County. With emergency personnel standing by, researchers in Level B [safety] suits recently cooked batches of the drug in the sealed house and took various readings afterward."
And why, exactly, is meth today mostly made by "morons" in hazardous conditions, rather than "safely" by "chemists" with the drug-production skills of Detective Vanover? As I pointed out previously, the problems of dangerous meth labs are a completely predictable outcome of prohibition. There is one way, and only one way, to return to a system in which meth is made only in safe conditions by qualified chemists, and that is to repeal drug prohibition. (As I have also argued, it is largely the prohibition of other drugs that created the modern illegal meth craze.) Indeed, if safe manufacture of methamphetamine were re-legalized, those manufacturers would have a keen interest in keeping dangerous competitors off the market.
Prendergast's story is full of other insights. Our politicians have sent our police officers on an impossible and dangerous task. Even Moriarty admits, "Why did we ever think this would go away? ... You walk to the corner store, you steal everything you need to manufacture it [meth] off the shelves, and you go home and cook it. When it's that easy, why would it go away?" Vanover once ran across some dangerous meth-related chemicals, then "developed breathing troubles and landed in intensive care two weeks later." Mostly, I felt a deep sympathy for our police officers while reading the article. It is a dangerous, unpleasant, and thankless task. And a hopeless one. Detective Randy Goin said, "I don't think we've stopped them, by any means... All we've done is make them change their ways a little bit."
But police officers are not the only victims of prohibition. Glen Grove of the Adams and Jefferson County Hazardous Response Authority describes a number of other problems to Prendergast. Innocent people could be wrongly targeted just because they are busted with the wrong collection of common household items. Renters are at risk of getting into a dangerous place, and land owners are at risk of suffering severe property damage. Black-market meth production can be truly nasty, and it is entirely the result of stupid Big Nanny laws that exacerbate the very problems they're supposed to solve.
At the same time, Prendergast only hints at the "rest of the story." The nastiest meth labs are the ones the police usually find, run by the least responsible people. The police know they find only a small fraction of existing black-market labs. The ones they don't find are, on average, run by more careful people who take greater precautions.
As good as Holthouse's companion article is, it too lacks the context that would give readers a rounded sense of the issue. After all, the only meth users we hear about are the ones who get busted by the police, the ones who go to treatment, or the ones crazy enough to let reporters follow them around. Most drug use is relatively boring.
Most people who do drugs, particularly the "harder" drugs like high-potency cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, use the drugs for a while, get tired of the cost, the hassle, and the physical wear, then quit. Nobody hears about these cases, the overwhelming majority of cases, outside the individual user's small group of friends (if even they know).
While Holthouse writes as if he's a fly on the wall, it's obvious the subjects of the article were quite conscious of his presence, and it strikes me that they might have been playing it up a bit for the journalist, looking for their "fifteen minutes of fame" and all that.
Still, what a bunch of dumb asses. Who in their right mind would want to stay up for three days without sleep? Who would want to blow that kind of cash on something so utterly worthless and pathetic?
Even though the subjects of the article may not be typical meth users, their comments are notable. One girl tells Holthouse, "I do it to feel like a kid again, to feel new again." A guy says, "I do it because I love to get high, pure and simple... I've got the gene." Genetic determinism is always a nice rationalization.
The articles in Westword are some of the best journalism I've ever read. Westword offers some of the best and most important coverage of criminal justice issues in Colorado. As I was reading the articles, a thought crossed my mind: "Who needs drugs when we can read Westword?" Apparently this also occurred to a couple letter writers.
Seriously. I've talked with a few people who went over-board on their drug use, until they figured out life has so much more to offer than that. 72 hours bleeding at the nose, throwing money down the toilet, ruining your health? Come on, people! There is so much inherent excitement in life. The nihilism sometimes shown in our culture baffles and angers me. We live in the richest, most technologically advanced age of all time, and the options open to us are almost without limit. This weekend, while some idiot is wasting away his life "partying" on meth or whatever, I'm working on the Colorado Freedom Report. I can think of no greater rush. We get one go around -- you can't stick in another quarter and hit the "reset" button.
If there's anything more tragic than the opportunities wasted by drug abuse, it is the violence, the chemical pollution, the wasted resources, the law-enforcement abuses, the destabilizing nightmare that is the war on drugs. Offhand, it's difficult to decide which group -- drug abusers or prohibitionist law-abusers -- is more fundamentally demented. I think it's clear, though, which group history will judge more harshly.