Good News in the Drug War - Commentary
Big victories in the drug war are seldom big news. Good news violates the old adage that "what bleeds leads," especially in competitive nightly news. But there is good news and it needs airing. It also leads to next steps.
You know, drug war stories are like castor oil. They might be good for you, but they are no fun to read. Yes, drug overdoses ended 20,000 young lives in 2003, crushing dreams, leaving gaping holes in families, schools and communities. But that stuff hurts to read. Don't you flip past that to the far away news?
Yes, drugs fund terrorism from Colombia to Afghanistan, but we are on that, aren't we? Surely that stuff is being handled by state and federal law enforcement. Do we have to be reminded -- again -- that we live in the midst of hidden dangers? Who needs that? Where's the sports page?
Slow down. Here are some facts for parents, grandparents, teachers, policy makers and the newsroom -- and then some good news. First, talking with kids -- even if it's a bit awkward -- about what you are about to read could save them -- or a friend.
Second, drug purities are outrageously high. Not long ago, heroin was 7 percent pure across the country. Today, it is between 70 and 90 percent -- everywhere. Emergency rooms are awash. A teen caught unaware and convinced to try it may not get a second chance. No kidding. Heroin can be popped, smoked, snorted or injected. They call it opium and other seductive names.
Ask your son or daughter if they know it can kill with one use. Have they seen it on school grounds, going, coming? Ever seen ecstasy, E, or butterfly? How about cocaine, or prescription drugs like oxycontin? Ask if they know marijuana is often laced with PCP. Know who the sellers are? You'll be surprised what they know. At some point, most kids are approached. The number one reason most say no -- is you.
Ok, so what about methamphetamine, or meth? You know about meth, right? If you don't, you are behind the times. One in 20 kids has tried it. Addiction rates are rising. In 16 states, there are now more kids in treatment for meth than either cocaine or heroin.
The East Coast is getting hit by a major wave of trafficking that started in California a decade ago, led by Mexican "super labs" and cheap ingredients. Those are (you knew this) over-the-counter pseudo-ephedrine and ephedrine. Rapid increases in use are being recorded in Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia, but Virginia, Maryland and the District of Colombia are vulnerable.
Meth purities doubled over the past decade. It is now 70 percent in many cities. Not many second chances there. A few dollars will buy enough meth for addiction; $25 dollars will buy several "rocks." Like the heroin, meth takes over, masked by increasing secrecy, kicking the unwitting teen into an abyss from which climbing out is often harder than escaping heroin addiction.
Down with that user goes her family -- parents and siblings, or children of the addict. From there radiate widening circles of pain. Yes, even "good kids" from "good families" get caught -- by the thousands. In major cities, between a quarter and a third of all arrestees test positive for meth.
Simple use induces unparalleled violence and depravity, as previous values get left curbside. Brain damage -- ugly stuff -- accompanies chronic use. That condition looks like Alzheimer's. Half of all states now consider meth the number one drug threat to kids. So, ask your son or daughter if they have ever heard talk of ice, speed, chalk, crystal, crank, glass, fire or poor man's cocaine. That's all meth.
So where's the good news? Well, this summer, the Senate Judiciary Committee finally approved -- with administration support -- a thorough-going anti-methamphetamine bill. This is more than talk.
While leaving tough state drug laws in place, the bill puts meth's primary ingredients -- pseudo-ephedrine and ephedrine -- behind the counter. It takes away easy access to these ingredients for those who were using them, and that is a big, good news story for kids, parents and families, not to mention law enforcement.
The next step is simple. If we apply international pressure to the ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine producers in India, China, the Czech Republic and Germany -- there are only nine -- we might be able to stop at the source a major scourge. Of course, that's another good news story you won't hear. But it is worth trying all the same. Now, back to the sports page.
Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is currently president of The Charles Group, Gaithersburg, Md.