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August 15, 2005 - National Post (Canada)

Manufacturing A Drug Panic

By Colby Cosh

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

This is the way the world ends -- not with a bang, or even a whimper, but to the clamorous din of the moral panic. Somewhere along the line, Western civilization stopped believing in the devil and proceeded to look for him in tobacco, Halloween candy, snuff films, school shootings and, above all, recreational drugs. Today's demon is street methamphetamine, the cheap nervous-system accelerant favoured by long-haul truckers and the gay demimonde.

This year meth has become the subject of a pack-journalism craze in the U.S.; Newsweek, which is basically a sort of certifying agency for moral panics, describes meth as "America's Most Dangerous Drug" in a recent cover story. "Tweakers" sobbing about the ineffable irresistibility of their favourite pick-me-up have since become the domestic flavour of the month in Canada too, and the federal government has moved fast to capitalize, announcing a meth "crackdown" on Thursday.

Amphetamines are not new, nor is methamphetamine, a chemical variant that is absorbed easily in the body. Even the crystalline form, which turns meth's proverbial powers of concentration and endurance into a feeling of godlike euphoria and cognitive overdrive, is not especially novel. On Friday, the Globe and Mail's Jane Armstrong dated crystal meth's arrival in Canada to the year 2000 ( "the drug arrived about five years ago on the West Coast" ); and when I say this must surely have provoked some snickers, I ain't talking chocolate. Crystal meth stands in the same approximate relationship to ordinary methamphetamine as crack does to cocaine; the high from the initial hit is quicker and purer, but it's essentially the same animal.

If meth itself is especially dangerous, it must surprise those who used it as a nasal decongestant before the Second World War. Or the millions who used it legally for weight loss until the 1970s. Or the thousands who might now slip south to obtain and fill American prescriptions for Desoxyn -- a trade name for meth, which is sometimes prescribed there to treat attention-deficit disorder. The federal government has moved meth to Schedule I of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which raises the maximum prison spell for manufacture and trafficking to life.

This is supposedly a response to the increasing popularity of the drug, but no one's providing a credible account of what's driving that popularity. "It's because it's so easy to make," say frontline drug warriors -- when not complaining about how dangerous it is to make -- but that's nothing new. What changed?

Indeed, did anything? There may suddenly be more meth users, but the surveys that might help us count them haven't been distinguishing meth from other forms of speed. We know the police are finding and hitting more meth labs in homes and rented spaces -- but it's only relatively recently that they've become concerned with the toxic byproducts of meth manufacture and the potential for explosion and fire.

So they should be. But we wouldn't have meth labs if you could still buy the stuff off the shelf, so the fires and poisonous emissions are police-created, no less than Prohibition-era bathtub gin and grow-op electricity thefts.

To the extent there is growth in meth production, the phenomenon appears to be primarily demand-driven. The drug seems to be elbowing out cocaine somewhat -- which should perhaps be encouraged, since it is arguably less addictive and carries less overdose risk. I also wouldn't find it terribly surprising if poor people were replacing nicotine with meth, since it may now be a cheaper kick thanks to our tax policies.

But I suspect that the consolidation of Canadian motorcycle gangs plays a big role as well. The Hells Angels know more about meth production than anyone this side of Abbott Laboratories, and are very good at organizing modest, distributed economies of scale.

You could argue that moving meth to Schedule I is a good way to go after the Angels indirectly. ( Legalizing it -- or, hell, banning motorcycles -- would work too. ) But it is less easy to defend a prospective second pillar of Ottawa's meth strategy -- monitoring and penalizing the possession of "precursor chemicals" present in cold remedies, household cleaners and other consumer products. This will merely force manufacturers to switch to different recipes, perhaps more dangerous ones. If legal pressure on the meth market is effective, prices will increase, and the rewards of persisting in the trade will only get greater.

Meanwhile, you may experience the meth-hysteria side-effects already being seen in the U.S.A.: sudden arrests of baffled drugstore owners who sold to the wrong people, sick people forced to jump through hoops to get Sudafed and innocent customers getting hairy-eyeballed when they buy the wrong combination of items at the hardware store.

Ultimately, and I say this with considerable shame, it's all coming to you courtesy of the journalism profession, which is peddling its hair-raising stories of "meth moms" without yet having apologized for inventing the imaginary "crack baby" back in the '80s.

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