President Clinton declared a new front in the war on drugs Monday -- methamphetamines, a stimulant Americans have snorted, swallowed or injected since GIs needed something to stay awake while on patrol in the Korean War. But the President has about as much chance of winning this campaign as previous administrations have had in their wars. For one thing meth is cheap, plentiful, powerful and very easy to make. For another thing, previous government and media inattention have allowed the powder to become firmly implanted in the American drug scene.
While reporting on its use in suburban high schools for Good Housekeeping magazine last year, I found the number crunchers at the government's National Institute of Drug Abuse to be blithely ignorant of the resurrection of meth, which had been occurring since the late1980s. As far as they were concerned, "speed" was that "biker drug" used by waitresses, construction workers and white trash in poor California neighborhoods. In the institute's annual statistical reports, treated with almost biblical reverence by the media and policymakers, meth barely rated an asterisk. The usual suspects, cocaine and marijuana, plus an occasional star turn by LSD, were still all the rage in mainstream research circles.
Local epidemiologists and drug counselors knew otherwise. Reports from the Drug Awareness Warning Network found meth cropping up in Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and St. Louis. Kids in New York state were grinding up Ritalin tablets and selling the amphetamine powder.
With cocaine too expensive (and short-lived) and crack simply declasse, speed, with its weight loss and up-all-night buzz, was finding its way into the illicit pharmacies of diet-crazed girls and thrill-seeking boys all over the country. A 1994 University of Michigan study found that more high school seniors had tried "crank" than cocaine and crack combined. "Frequent" use among eighth, tenth and twelfth graders far outweighed similar use of coke.
Law enforcement has also been behind the curve.
The mom 'n' pop biker operations, as the DEA belatedly discovered, have been superseded by the giant, transcontinental "poly-drug" distributors, originating primarily in Mexico, who use the same channels to distribute the meth nationwide that they have long used for coke and marijuana. "Speed has crept on us," John Coonce, a special agent for DEA, admitted to me last year.
Just as formidable is the task of shutting down the supply of precursor chemicals like ephedrine, which makes for a far more potent crank high than the old wireheads used to snort. Tons of the stuff, from Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, pour across the Mexican and Canadian borders in an uninterrupted flow. Busting the domestic "labs" that produce the off-whitish powder produces a whole other set of problems, as local sheriffs and environmental officials will tell you. Cleaning up the toxic swamp left by the chemical residues is both time consuming and expensive. So expensive in certain cash-strapped counties that local law enforcement often pass on the chance to bust labs they know about.
Like other Washington-led wars on drugs, we should of course take this one with a healthy dose of political skepticism. Clinton needs to keep his tough-on-crime base covered. And singling out meth will earn him credits with suburban parents. Clinton has declared that we have to fight meth "before it becomes the crack of the '90s." But speed already has a big head start.
Once symbols of the yearning for freedom, Vietnam's boat people now find they have no place in the New World Order
By ANDREW LAM
The image once gripped us -- a small, crowded boat bobbing on a vast, merciless sea. A ragged SOS flag flew from its mast
while its equally ragged passengers waved thin arms at passing ships. "Help us," their sign said. "We Love Freedom. We Love USA!"
Once we couldn't get enough of their stories. Today, the charm we felt at the boat peoples' enthusiasm for our homeland has turned into
resignation and fear. The 35,000 refugees from Southeast Asia now being herded back to Vietnam have no place in our circumscribed New World Order. They are "economic refugees," maybe even liars, their stories insufficient to stand in the way of forced repatriation.
Diep Tran, a second lieutenant in the South Vietnam army, was caught trying to escape in 1979. He was tortured and sent to a re-education camp while his wife was forced to live with a communist cadre to prevent her family from being blacklisted. When Tran and his son finally reached Hong Kong, he was denied refugee status because he lacked the $3,000 cash demanded by a screening official. In protest, his son, Anh Huy, committed self-immolation in front of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees office.
Huong Nguyen spent ten years at forced labor in a New Economic Zone, clearing jungle, watching her fellow laborers get blown to bits by land mines. She was pregnant and had a one-year-old child. Her husband, a South Vietnamese lieutenant, had been killed while trying to escape from a re-education camp. She escaped in 1985 with her sons but wound up separated from them. In the end, they were allowed into the Philippines, but she was screened out. Her sons now live in Santa Ana, Calif. Their mother has become a living ghost.
Lam A Lu was a Montagnard tribesman who fought for the U.S. He was sent to hard labor and tortured before he escaped. Hong Kong authorities judged his story a lie and denied him asylum, despite the seven bullet wounds in his body. If Lu could be rejected, his fellow detainees wonder in despair, who could get accepted? Not the Buddhist monk who fled Vietnam because he was forbidden to perform ceremonies; nor the Catholic nun who was punished for singing Catholic songs. And certainly not men and women who had worked for the U.S. armed forces as soldiers, interpreters, and office workers during the Vietnam war.
For these story tellers, the "free world" no longer exists. "It is the same inside Vietnam," says one refugee, "as it is outside."
Sometimes worse. Visit one of the boat peoples' camps and the living ghosts besiege you with their pleading eyes as they try to tell you their stories. A child born inside the camps knows only a world of chicken-wire fences, cement courtyards, red plastic food pails and bunk beds surrounded with thin curtains -- "my house," one of them calls it. High above, jumbo jets soar across the Hong Kong horizon and voices on the cellular phones negotiate across multiple time zones. "Is it true, Uncle," the child asks a visitor, "that at the red light you stop and at the green light you go?"
For the boat people, the light has turned permanently red. They once raced toward the free world, when there was an "iron curtain" separating it from the "evil Empire," and it was understood that risking one's life for freedom was a good thing. The myth ended midway in their flight when the curtain crashed and the ideal of protecting refugees turned into the business of protecting the West from a "flood" of asylum seekers.
Few now speak up for the Vietnamese refugees, but perhaps that is beside the point. The boat people, kicking and screaming as they are carted off to airplanes for the journey home, warn us that it is our misfortune if we can no longer hear them. It is we, not they, who sit in the dark, our hands on our ears, like poor, huddled masses.
Pacific News Service
Andrew Lam, a former refugee from Vietnam, has visited refugee camps in Hong Kong and Cambodia. He is an editor with Pacific News Service.
Quote of the day
Kinder, gentler mayhem
"What the journalists have failed to point out is that this time, unlike previous fighting in Monrovia, the civilians have not really suffered. In the past, fighters would rip out people's intestines and use them to string up roadblocks, or cut off people's heads. This time there has been none of that."
-- Reginald Goodrich, an aide to Liberian faction leader Charles Taylor, to reporter Howard French of The New York Times. The Liberian capital lies in ruins after the most recent wave of violence in the African country's on-and-off five-year civil war.