Saturday, April 23, 2005
Last night I went to a town hall meeting in Newport on the meth epidemic (one of the many bonuses of living in a small town -- we unabashedly do dorky stuff like go to town hall meetings.) As I was lying in bed this morning I was wondering whether to talk about my own personal drug history when I wrote it up, because I really haven't touched on it here before, but I figured oh, well, fuck it.
The only really relevant part to this story is that I have one, and I've been clean and sober for many years now, but part of that staying clean and sober bit means sitting down on a regular basis with other addicts, drinking coffee and listening to their stories, doing community outreach and just generally trying to help out. And since I've been in Oregon it's become apparent that the meth problem is an epidemic of staggering proportions, far worse than anything I ever encountered in LA, and that's saying something.
Basically, meth is commonly made with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, drugs derived from the ma-huang plant. Ephedrine has been largely regulated in recent years, so drug manufacturers have switched to pseudoephedrine. Since there are only 8 factories in the world that manufacture it, it has a controllability factor that other drugs like cocaine and heroin, derived from organic sources, do not. Now, I'm not here to defend US drug policy or the DEA. But meth is a bad fucking drug with horrific social consequences and back in the 80s the DEA knew what they needed to do to control the manufacture and distribution of meth in the US, namely monitor and control the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
Diane Feinstein, under pressure in California regarding the growing meth problem, put forward a bill to give the DEA enforcement power over the chemicals. And wouldn't you know, Nancy Reagan had that wonderful "just say no" thing going at the time, which should have ensured a receptive ear from her husband. What happened? Well, Pfizer stepped in, called their good buddy Orrin Hatch, and then phoned the White House. They didn't want their 3 billion dollar a year cold-tablet sales to be affected by any sort of regulation that might limit the sale of their drugs. The legislation was gutted by Hatch, and illegal meth production flourished after Reagan signed a watered-down bill as money and a big-business lobby once again trumped "values." The legacy of the "just say no" years -- white middle class drug use waned, drug use among the poor and people of color increased.
Anyway, here's the interesting part. Jump to oh so many years later when states are dealing with the hideous social impact of meth addiction. After the shooting death of an Oklahoma cop by a meth dealer was caught on audio tape, the governor of Oklahoma demanded and got an emergency bill to put any product with pseudoephedrine behind the counter. This is something that Pfizer lobbyists have been fighting tooth and nail in any state that proposed it, saying that states should go after the drug manufacturers and not the poor cold products. Next door in Arkansas, they bought the Pfizer bullshit and enacted legislation that gave long mandatory jail sentences to anyone caught brewing up a batch of meth. What happened? Oklahoma's meth problem was instantly cut by as much as 80%, as measured by both emergency room and detox facility admissions, as well as number of meth labs busted. What happened to all the meth labs? They went over the border to Arkansas, where the meth problem soared.
Many of the people at the meeting seemed to be those who are dealing professionally with the fallout of the meth problem in Oregon, a lot of them cops, and everyone there pretty much scoffed at the notion that the problem could be dealt with by making criminal penalties worse -- by the time someone decides to start brewing their own meth they've had a habit for an average of six years, and the thought of jail time just really isn't something they're thinking about. And these local people who are trying to develop realistic policy alternatives are completely overwhelmed by the lack of adequate treatment facilities, as well as social services to address many of the contributing factors to drug addiction.
How bad is the problem? It's awfully, sadly, woefully pathetically bad. The local police estimate that 80% of all calls they respond to are meth-related (almost all burglaries, auto and identity theft also turn out to be meth-related). And one in five -- take a minute, let it sink in, one in five -- babies born in rural Oregon hospitals are meth-addicted.
Most everyone acknowledges that it wasn't like this a couple of years ago. I have sat in prisons and rehabs and treatment centers and listened to the most hair-raising stories of people trying to get sober and come to terms with things they did under the influence of a drug that is so much stronger than anything that was ever available before that it is absolutely heartbreaking. (Oh and just in case anyone was wondering, nobody ever said they did this shit because they played Grand Theft Auto.) After years of being bought-off by the powerful drug lobbies Oregon realized it doesn't have the resources to handle the fallout any more and finally enacted legislation to put pseudoephedrine-based products behind the counter (which, by the way, was the number one suggestion to control the problem made by people who were busted for cooking meth). I hope it helps.
And how do YOU spell hypocrisy? Well, I spell it P-F-I-Z-E-R. There is evidently a form of pseudoephedrine that could have been used all this time in cold remedies that would have been equally effective but didn't have the ability to be cooked into meth. It just would've cost the pharmaceutical companies some money to switch over to it. So now that states like Oregon and Oklahoma are leading the way in passing legislation to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, Pfizer decided it didn't want to lose the shelf space. They're now building a factory in Germany and have a six-month jump on all their competition to switch over their drugs from one form of pseudoephedrine to the other unregulated form.
And wouldn't you know it -- their lobbyists are now pushing every state for STRICTER regulation of pseudoephedrine and BTC (behind-the-counter) laws, so they will have the market advantage. (Oops! You left a loophole here...bad state!) Bastards. Evil, twisted, amoral sons-of-bitches trading in human misery. One of the lead lobbyists is a woman named Nancy Bukar at the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, who fought the BTC laws every step of the way on behalf of Pfizer and others, saying "You've got to strike a balance here...yes, they're being used in an illegitimate fashion by some people, but the major majority of the people are using it for colds and to unstuff noses."
Well here's an invitation to Ms. Bukar. I'm headed down to the women's prison later this week. You're welcome to tag along.
(For more on this topic go to the truly excellent coverage by Steven Suo at the Oregonian.)