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Meth, American Style

Thu 1 Mar 2007 In: Health and HIV View at NDHA

According to the US Frontline PBS current affairs series, there was a prolonged period of inaction that led to the escalation of the crystal meth/P crisis within the United States. It's a depressingly familiar story. Just as HIV/AIDS was allowed to mushroom due to the senescent neglect of Ronald Reagan during the eighties, so the methamphetamine epidemic accelerated out of control during the nineties. According to Frontline's reconstruction of events, the US Drug Enforcement Agency knew that it might be possible to use precursor constituent compounds like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to create 'refined' crystalline versions of methamphetamine as early as 1988. However, the DEA was limited to the continental United States, and it was Mexican drug cartels that decided to diversify from cocaine in the late eighties. Given this warning, why was nothing done to control the circulation and distribution of precursor chemicals until the later nineties? The answer is simple- pharmaceutical corporation greed. Pharmaceutical companies feared that any regulation of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine would eat into their profit margins, and they actively lobbied against state and federal imposition of such controls. Unfortunately, Mexican drug cartels decided to take advantage of these deadly loopholes and started mass importations of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from similarly unregulated points of origin like Germany, the Czech Republic, China and India. It was not until 1994 that the United States detected this 'grey market' traffic, and pressured the governments in question to stop the traffic of precursor compounds to remove Mexico's suppliers. Back in the United States, there was no consolidated legislation that would have dealt with the problems of precursor compound supply. Instead, there were a series of piecemeal reforms that still left gaping loopholes for drug cartels to exploit. For example, unregulated sales of ephedrine were stopped in 1994, but pseudoephedrine was allowed to circulate freely, so drug cartels merely switched to the latter compound. In 1996, that loophole was partially removed when pseudoephedrine was also included under distribution and registration protocols, but there was an exemption available for 'blister packs' of pseudoephedrine, so the drug cartels switched their supply source to exploit that exemption. Moreover, it was the Republican Congressional era at the federal level, and US Republican ideology encouraged deregulation for corporations, so government drug enforcement agencies got the short end of the slashed budgets of that era. When the Drug Enforcement Agency introduced a corporate drug importation registration scheme, the criminal drug cartels set up shell companies, and the problem worsened. While these were weeded out, it took far too long, and the problembecame still more entrenched.Meanwhile, Mexico was still an achilles heel. As a deadly crystal meth black market spread across impoverished American rural states and into US West Coast gay communities, the Bush administration dithered until 2004. Finally, the administration pressured Mexico to crack down on its own illegal ephedrine and pseudoephedrine importation industries, but the damage was done. Exploiting the American market had given crystal meth manufacturers economies of scale, and they were able to shift supply, manufacture and distribution facilities away from the United States. And New Zealand? We still know little about the early stages of the crystal meth crisis here. Perhaps New Zealand gangs discovered details of drug manufacture from links with overseas drug cartels, or discovered methamphetamine lab assembly details somewhere on the 'net, but in any case, the problem spread to our shores. Craig Young - 1st March 2007    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Thursday, 1st March 2007 - 12:00pm

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