Wilder living through chemistry

September 19, 1996|By George F. Will

SAN DIEGO -- The fact that there is, in a sense, a Colombia within America's borders illustrates the complexity and intractability of drug problems that multiply faster than solutions can even be imagined. The ''source country'' for America's supply of methamphetamine, a drug now making the mean streets even meaner, is San Diego County.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents waging semi-military operations against manufacturers and distributors of that drug describe its effects as similar to, but longer lasting -- up to 12 hours per hit -- than those of cocaine. Users are called ''tweakers.'' The term is borrowed from mechanics, who speak of ''tweaking'' an engine to make it perform better. One DEA agent's laconic description of methamphetamine's effect: The user is mowing his lawn at 3 a.m.

Or the user unintentionally kills his or her baby by shaking it too hard. It gets users so wired they can stay awake for three or four days. Which makes them crazy and dangerous. Eighty percent of the people arrested here have drugs in their systems, and more than half are on methamphetamine.

The street value of one pound -- which can provide 90,000 ''hits'' -- is $8,000 to $12,000 here, $25,000 in the East. It takes at most $500 worth of chemicals to make that pound. Fifty to 70 pounds of the stuff can be manufactured in 24 hours in primitive ''kitchens'' that can be quickly assembled and disassembled in shacks in the hills and ravines of this sprawling county that is larger than Rhode Island. The chemicals can be smuggled in large quantities. The recipe for the product can be found on the Internet.

California's motorcycle gangs used to control the methamphetamine trade, but various fallings-out and other business turbulence opened the way for a hostile takeover by people from -- let it not be said there are no entry-level jobs for new arrivals -- Mexico. They have lowered the tone of the business using violence beyond the ken of the relatively demure motorcyclists.

The DEA office here has a horrifying slide show detailing some of the practices, including the distinctive signature on assassinations: bullet holes in the pattern of a cross on the victim's face.

Fashions change regarding drugs. Workers digging the Erie Canal received a quart of whiskey a day in eight four-ounce portions, beginning at 6 a.m. Harry Truman drank whiskey before breakfast. And alcohol is not the only recreational drug concerning which mores have changed. In his ''Letters from an American Farmer'' (1782), Hector St. John de Crevecoeur noted among Nantucket ladies ''the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning.''

Wonderful cocaine

Then 19th-century developments in organic chemistry began what Pat Moynihan calls yet another hard, continuing lesson about the impact of technology on society. In 1885 the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company declared cocaine a ''wonder drug'' that could ''make the coward brave, and the silent eloquent.'' Cocaine and heroin (it was advertised in the Yale Alumni News) could be purchased without prescriptions until 1914.

Perhaps society's first, shall we say, chemical crisis concerned distilled alcohol, which Mr. Moynihan calls the ''combined result of the invention of distillation and an agricultural revolution that produced a relative abundance of grain.'' Devastation wrought by cheap gin contributed to a stunning phenomenon: London's population grew hardly at all in the first half of the 18th century.

In the first half of the next century, London's population tripled. It did for many reasons, but one was that society became better at living with a new product of technology. What happened? Among other things, John Wesley happened. A religious movement seized the culture by the lapels and shook it.

The hope for some similar cultural shaking is small comfort to DEA agents crawling through the underbrush toward drug labs defended by heavily armed people whose volatile behavior suggests they have been sampling their product. These admirable agents know they are no match for the storm. They are improvising levees against surging rivers of substances, and as long as millions of Americans seek wilder living through chemistry, real flood control will require cultural revival, not just law enforcement.

What sustains agents is their correct conviction that enforcement signals society's seriousness, a prerequisite for revival. Besides, causing bad things to happen to bad people is a pleasure.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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