The Winnipeg Free Press discovered crystal meth this year. There were a few stories, usually tied to the meetings of the Western Canadian provincial premiers, over the last year or 18 months. A few weeks ago, the Free Press discovered the real source of the problem and the government instantly solved it. I am of course being sarcastic, and not completely fair to the Free Press. Some of the information in the recent stories was more useful than the usual daily wad of infomercials and propaganda between the Superstore section, the Canadian Tire section, the Wal-mart section and the Future Shop section.
The full stories are on Mike McIntyre’s web site. On Saturday December 10, 2005, there were two front page stories in the Free Press, the first part of a series called Mainline to Meth. The stories were by Bruce Owen. The lead story was “Canada’s Open Door to Meth”. The second story was “Faces of meth: 5 who cheated death”. The lead story carried on for another quarter page on an inside page. The “Faces” story was continued on a full inside page, and it was accompanied by two more stories, “Ex-addict sues dealer” and piece called “Facts and Figures on Deadly Drug”. There was a little sidebar on page A13, not reproduced on McIntyre’s web site, which says the Free Press began its report “last summer” and that Health Canada had not responded to several parts of the Free Press’s requests under the Access to Information Act.
There were three more stories on Sunday December 11, 2005, occupying much of one of the Sunday sections. Two of the stories, by Bruce Owen, “Buying ephedrine with ease” (co-written with McIntyre) and “Ag staple a key ingredient” were about the availability of ephedrine. The third story, by McIntyre, “Our Pipeline to Hell” was a true crime story, built on police information from a case against a Winnipeg businessman charged with exporting ephedrine into the US. The case died when the accused man died, and the Free Press seems to have been able to get access to the investigation file.
On Monday November 12, another front page story by Owen, co-written with Ottawa reporter Paul Samyn, “Prime Minister vows assault on drug” and a story by McIntyre, “Drug program”, which is a story abut the Meth kickers program based on an interview with a program graduate. (I saw a documentary on that program, Dark Crystal, on CBC last March).
There was one more story on November 13, by Owen, “Health Canada to curb drug-making chemicals”. which follows up on the Prime Minister’s announcement. I think there were one or two more stories, not on McIntyre’s site, which followed up on Provincial funding for more treatment “beds” for crystal addiction. The Free Press published a story from the CP wire today, about an Ontario police task force advising the Ontario government on how to prevent the “spread” of the crystal meth problem into Ontario.
The stories on November 10 contained useful information about the drug and the addiction. The information may influence some young people to avoid the drug, although the newspaper may not a powerful influence on many young people, compared to their peers and their milieu. It should help parents and friends to recognize the signs of addiction. I recall going through a lot of BS with n. about whether his itching skin was due to scabies, and his belief that the drug came out through his skin (addicts can develop granular pimples).
The stories about addicts and their families were good. They made it clear that addictions are not concentrated in particular economic classes, ethnic groups or areas of town. Nor are addictions concentrated among “bad” or “problem” kids. They avoided, for the most part, stereotypes and stigma. The section with a headline about healing the family carries ambivalent messages, and appeared to stigmatize the parents of addicts as being bad parents, for being out of touch. I would agree that a family that is divided over how to handle addiction can’t help. But story did buy into the agenda of blaming the family for the child’s addiction, which is a popular theme among teachers, psychologists, and social workers when they can’t solve the problem. I think parents don’t know their kids, and don’t have much influence over their kids after they start school, certainly not after puberty. I think that it is unfair for teachers and other professionals to blame parents for addictions. I think teachers know more than parents about which kids are running into trouble, but the politics of public education makes it hard for a teacher to tell a parent that your little darling is a drug abusing liar hanging out with shitbag dealer – who is some other parent’s darling. On the whole, the stories don’t push the idea that problem was caused by parents who didn’t “know” their kids, but the stigma is there.
I thought the stories, while they talked about the horrific lives of addicts, were a little optimistic. Everyone they interviewed was in recovery, and everyone had managed to get access to treatment. That’s not representative of the facts.
The stories about the regulation of ephedrine sales looked at a real failure by a public agency to figure out that half the ephedrine sold was disappearing into the drug trade. The story arc made it look like investigative journalism caused real change, almost overnight. Health Canada knew this was coming – they had the access to information requests. They considered their options. I may be cynical but I am wondering if the government’s response wasn’t delayed to allow the Prime Minister to make an election announcement. This isn’t rocket surgery. The Prime Minister’s announcement creates the false impression that regulating ephedrine is going to affect the availability of the drug. This wasn’t examined closely or followed. Crystal can be made from a variety of commercial cough and cold remedies. In the US, they have been taking this stuff off the shelves in pharmacies. This has happened in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and it may happen in Ontario soon. The idea is to make it more difficult for people to steal cold medications from drugstores, and harder to buy them. I am not sure if American states have gone to requiring a prescription. US law enforcement officials believe this is making the drug harder to get, but they also blame Canada for lax control of raw ephedrine, which is being exported into the US. The chemistry is easy, and as long as ephedrine is available, there will by crystal meth.
The news coverage of the Prime Minister’s announcement and the Health Department’s announcement would suggest that the government has very nearly fixed the problem. It would be more accurate to say that the government has started to grasp the illicit uses of ephedrine and is trying to regulate more intensely without banning ephedrine. In the long run it may be as hard to ban as raw cocaine and opium. It isn’t clear that the new regulations have been enacted, and it seems unlikely that new inspectors have been hired or trained. The process is being handled by experts, acting in secret. Who were the participants? Who put the issues on the table? What were the issues? For instance, did anyone ask if we should stop regulating ephedrine and just ban it? The drug companies wouldn’t like that. Do people really need these patent medicines? Who spoke for the public?
The story about the now-deceased Winnipeg businessman selling ephedrine into the US was interesting if you like true crime stories, useful in showing how hard it is to prevent a businessman from making a dirty dollar. The comments about the late Roger B. from his friends and family are disconcerting – a competive and ambtious individual, comfortable in his own right to accumulate wealth, easily sliding into the drug trade. Does any businessmen have a claim to moral superiority over Al Swearingen and Tony Soprano? If it’s not nailed down, it’ss for sale. It was a hard investigation, because the police started with fragments of information but the story wasn’t that complicated. McIntyre made it seem more complicated and dramatic than it was.
While the stories did get to the threshold of public accountability for the regulation of the trade in ephedrine, but the stories let all levels of government off the hook on the treatment issue. There are few effective programs anywhere, nothing in Manitoba, and no one cares to organize the resources to do deal with a new drug. Is the Meth kicker’s program the only program? Does it work? Is it effective or is it someone’s wild-assed guess? Do we have that program or any effective program here? Are there any involuntary detox programs or intervention programs? Why not? Is it social policy or lack of funded programming? The AFM’s youth services don’t seem to connect with street kids, and the public is quite naive about what this service actually does and can do. If your kid is in trouble, AFM can help you can find a support group to share the pain, and a counsellor to tell you to meditate and think happy thoughts.