The Forgotten Victory in the War on Drugs

The Forgotten Victory in the War on Drugs

By Neville Elder 04/21/15

How the DEA got one thing right.

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Yesterday's resignation of the Head of the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michele Leonhart, amid sex scandals and bitter conflicts with Obama's White House, comes at a time when the agency should be looking back at their golden years. Thirty years ago Reagan's DEA were, for a change, on the winning side in the 'War on Drugs.'

In 1978, when the pharmaceutical company Rorer sold the trademark for the much maligned and often misused party drug Quaalude to Lemmon, the chairman of the company,  John Eckman, remarked:

“Quaalude accounted for less than 2% of our sales but created 98% of our headaches.” — Lawrence Journal-World 1982

Just as Xerox became a proprietary eponym for photocopiers, Quaalude became the brand name for methaqualone—the disco-era party drug known as Disco Biscuits, Vitamin Q or simply, ‘Ludes. The Lemmon pharmaceutical company tried desperately to rejuvenate Quaalude’s reputation. At the peak of the drug’s notoriety, the company’s lawyers would write 25-30 letters a day to newspapers and police departments across the country explaining that the drug's use by partygoers and the cause of overdoses was an illegally produced version of methaqualone. In 1981, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 95-99% of the methaqualone drugs confiscated were not Quaalude. The letter-writing campaign continued until Lemmon sold the trademark to Pfizer, who, 30 years ago, capitulated to the bad press and discontinued manufacturing the drug.

Many prescribing doctors considered Quaalude an excellent daytime sedative and sleep aid. But coma-induced deaths through misuse and the horror headlines scared them. Sales of the Quaalude brand spiraled down. The drug was particularly popular because of the hypnotic effect created when users fought the urge to sleep. Tom used the drug in the 1970s and '80s in New York City:

“Studio 54, Mudd club, a real wave of people who came to New York were using it. We were all artists, in the village, there was music, art, CBGB’s. ‘Ludes make you feel warm and fuzzy—everything’s wonderful but it could get really messy if you drank. A friend of mine went into a coma. I’d take 3 at a time and couldn’t stand up.

I had a pockets for downers (Valium and Quaalude) and a pocket for uppers (cocaine and speed). I’d try to balance them to stay up. It’s a good sex drug, too—it just made you kinda love everyone!”

It was a national problem but Quaalude’s sudden fall from grace was due not to falling sales, however, but to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In possibly the only victory in the “War on Drugs," by the end of the '80s the sale of illegal methaqualone pills had disappeared. It was all due to the head of an obscure DEA department, the Office of Diversion Control (OD). His name was Gene Haislip.

The DEA hit traffickers and bootleggers where they could of course, crushing pill-mills in traditional raids and sting operations, but the pills were being smuggled in from Colombia, where the DEA had no jurisdiction. They needed a different approach. Haislip started working on a novel form of drug prevention. A style of operation that became known as "chemical control."

Methaqualone was a chemical compound so sophisticated that Colombian criminal cartels couldn’t make it themselves—they had to buy it from somewhere else.

Gene Haislip died in 2003 but his daredevil exploits in Colombia are legendary at the DEA. Through his consulting work and high-profile interviews over the years, the picture of a dedicated public servant and a fearless adventurer has emerged.

After some investigation into the source of the illegal drug, he found himself flying into the major Colombian port of Barranquilla on a rickety DC-3 airplane. Haislip recalls a meeting with the head of customs in a crumbling government building: 

“When I started to explain the problem, this official immediately froze up and said, ‘We can’t talk here.’ He put his automatic in his belt and motioned for us to follow him. We went to an area that was completely abandoned, nothing but empty rooms and a few pieces of furniture. We sat over in the far corner of one of these rooms, guns on the table. I knew I was into something fairly heavy at this point.”

(Quoted in the William and Mary magazine ).

The pills were made by Colombian drug lords. Local authorities tipped off Haislip to information discovered in the seizure of a methaqualone shipment intercepted on the docks at Barranquilla. This told the DEA the essential component of the bootleg Quaalude were coming from Hungary. Haislip followed the paper trail through Hungary, to Austria and Germany. Each time he found a legal source he shut it down with local government cooperation and pressure from the U.S. Gradually, the DEA hacked at the heads of the Hydra until Colombians had no drug powder to make their counterfeit pills, and they simply gave up. It was a revolutionary approach and perfectly suited to a drug that needed few ingredients that couldn’t be grown or manufactured from other sources.

But the success against methaqualone remains the DEA’s only "win" in the War on Drugs. The next time Haislip tried to use the principle of chemical control to lock out the supply of a deadly drug, he was shut down by the people who should have had his back, the people who instigated Reagan’s "War on Drugs": the U.S. Congress.

In the '60s and '70s Northern California’s outlaw biker gangs knocked out a homemade speed called "crank" or crystal meth. Nevertheless, it still represented a headache to law enforcement. Gene Haislip and the DEA saw a way to shut it down before it started doing serious business. Just like methaqualone, crystal methamphetamine also relied on an imported chemical: ephedrine. It also happens to be the principal ingredient of decongestants and cold medicine and is also too complicated to be replicated in a home lab.

The cold medicine market is worth considerably more than the metaxalone market ever was worth (around $3 billion at the time). After all, the Quaalude brand meant so little to Pfizer that they just stopped making it. In 1989, the Office of Diversion Control with Haislip at the helm, proposed a federal law to stop criminals getting their hands on bulk loads of ephedrine. Just like the one that knocked out metaxalone. They wanted to control the importation of ephedrine and put cold medicine behind the counter. Big Pharma cried foul, no way were the DEA going to take a shot at their cash-cow. They lobbied congress and Haislip was forced to compromise. Ephedrine, in its purest form, would be regulated, cold medicines would not.

The new controls on ephedrine made it harder to get hold of the powder. Production fell by 60%. But in the early 1990s a huge spike in the quantity and quality of crystal meth on the streets of the Western U.S. shook up the DEA. It turned out the unregulated pseudoephedrine, ephedrine’s chemical cousin, was interchangeable with ephedrine as the ingredient for meth’s deadly cocktail. Criminals were importing massive quantities of pseudoephedrine from the manufacturers in India. Superlabs in California of Breaking Bad proportions, popped up once again.

The Haislip and the DEA convinced Congress to regulate pseudoephedrine, but again was forced to kneel down to the Big Pharma. The powder could be regulated but not the end product: the pills. Meth labs folded as the ephedrine ran out but it wasn’t long before the backroom cooks figured out that with some effort, pseudoephedrine could be extracted from the pills themselves. In late 90s, the U.S. entered the second wave of the meth epidemic. It had now crossed the Mississippi and become a national problem.

Every time Haislip and the DEA’s suggested legislation, it was watered down. Criminals would find a loophole and continue to manufacture meth. DEA proposals to issue licenses to import pseudoephedrine were amended by Congress at the last minute to allow legitimate companies time to adjust to the new regulations. This led to the absurd situation of the DEA issuing temporary licenses to fake companies that then pumped out more meth.

In 2004, pseudoephedrine was finally behind the counter and just as production in the U.S. was slipping back to 1980s' levels, cooking in Mexico reached epic proportions. Mexican pharmaceutical companies were importing 100 tons more pseudoephedrine than they needed to make cold medicine in their domestic market. Once again, the Mexican crime cartels were skimming or importing pseudoephedrine through shell companies and using their established smuggling routes flooding the U.S. with tons of high-quality dope.

Only pressure on the Mexican government to create legislation stemmed the tide, but there was no going back. When Congress denied the DEA's request to control all types of ephedrine, the window of opportunity to shut out meth was closed.

“I have to concede [that] in retrospect it was a mistake.”

Haislip said of the concession to congress, in a 2004 Frontline documentary on PBS.

But in later years he remained satisfied:

“Even if you can’t completely solve a problem, you can improve it. Does it matter if 1,000 die instead of 10,000? You’re damn right it matters, by 9,000…That’s 9,000 who will live, and all their kids.”

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the farce of death penalty drugsrock 'n roll recovery and early morning sober raves.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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