August 04, 2005

Ridiculous drug war

Before we start to wring our hands about police insensitivity to cultural and language problems in a sting operation called Operation Meth Merchant that nabbed 44 indian-immigrant convenience store clerks in Georgia, we ought to ask ourselves -- again -- whether this war on drugs is doing more harm than good.

The operation was designed to enforce a federal law making it a crime to distribute any product with knowledge or with reasonable cause to believe that that product will be used to produce drugs. 21 U.S.C. 843(a)(6-7). Convenience store clerks, most of whom presumably do not harbor any aspirations of becoming police officers (or drug dealers), can be locked up for terms in excess of ten years because they sold legal products with legal uses to their customers, and didn't concern themselves enough with what the customers were going to do with these legal products after they left the store.

That's draconian on two levels. It harshly penalizes clerks when they merely do their own jobs, and don't try to do the jobs of DEA agents without pay. It's also draconian for customers, many of whom would like to be able to buy some cold medicine and some kitty litter without the sales clerk wondering what they're going to be doing with such suspicious products. "One's for my nose, and the other's for my cat's shit" is what I'd say if anyone asked. Or, better yet, "it's none of your business. What are you, DEA?"

The drug warriors will always tell you that methamphetamine is dangerous, and that it's bad for you. But the drug warriors can't seem to realize that this doesn't justify limitless law enforcement intrusion into other areas of our lives. So let's not be distracted by the cultural issues here. Even if all of the Operation Meth Merchant perps were white guys named Floyd from Atlanta, this sting operation and the law it was designed to enforce would still be a problem.

Posted by Carey at August 4, 2005 10:12 AM

Obviously, I would be arrested if I were a convenience store clerk. I had no idea that kitty litter and cold medicine were used to make meth. Are you telling me that they will actually punish people for not knowing how meth is made? Good job!

It sounds essentially like a strict liability crime.

Posted by: Heidi at August 4, 2005 05:54 PM

I'm in about 99% agreement here. But this sentence, toward the bottom of the article, makes me wonder a bit just how innocent some of these clerks might be: "In one instance ... a store owner ... pulled out a business card from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and told the informant that he was supposed to contact the agent if someone requested large amounts of the materials. When the informant asked if he would call, Mr. Nahmias said, the owner replied, "No, you are my customer."

Posted by: Matt at August 8, 2005 11:17 AM