Pubdate: Mon, 15 Aug 2005
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2005 Southam Inc.
Author: Colby Cosh
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


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 

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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom