Showing posts with label drugs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label drugs. Show all posts

11 August 2019

Canada responds to the U.S. on mass exportation of our drugs: Sorry.


Rarely does American primary politics impact Canada, but Senator Bernie Sanders’ ‘Insulin Caravan’ has certainly led to a situation that has ruffled Canadian feathers.

First, let’s be clear on why Sen. Sanders came: “By traveling to Canada, which has a single-payer, government-backed health care system, he was also making an implicit case for his "Medicare for All" plan, which would create a similar system in this country."

The people who came in the caravan didn’t come for political reasons but, rather, for heartbreakingly personal reasons: “Kathy Sego, who made a 7-hour trip from Indiana with her son, Hunter, who requires insulin and has rationed his intake, became emotional as she described choosing between paying a power bill or for the teen's medicine.”

What is the response in Canada? The average Canadian believes that healthcare is a human right and this compassion is best expressed by the Canadian mother of an eight-year-old Type 1 diabetic : "When I see headlines of people passing away because they're having to ration their insulin and they can't afford it [and] when you live with someone with Type 1, I can't imagine," she said. "What if it was your mother? Your brother? Any family member? I would give anything I could to afford the insulin to buy it — but we shouldn't need to do that.”

Then this happened: “[The Trump] administration said it was weighing plans to allow for the legal importation of prescription drugs from Canada to help Americans coping with skyrocketing drug prices in the United States.
The response from Canadians? Sorry, but back off.”

Why such a different response to the individuals coming for drugs and the American government promoting a mass importation of Canadian drugs? It is because Canada has a small population of 37M compared to the massive population of 325M. We already have drug shortages and cannot sustain a mass exodus of our life-saving drugs.

In fact, “the Canadian Medical Association and 14 other groups representing patients, health-care professionals, pharmacists and hospitals wrote last week to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor. The supply simply does not, and will not, exist within Canada to meet such demands…John Adams, the chair of the Best Medicines Coalition, an advocacy group for access to drugs that signed the letter last week to the health minister, said he’s not encouraged by the Canadian government’s “nonspecific” response to Trump’s proposal.
He called it “a clear and present danger” to the health of Canadians.
This is not the sort of thing that good neighbors do to each other.”

This is Canadian-speak for no, we won’t do that.

So, the consensus seems to be this: if you are in dire need, come here and we’ll share.

 If you want - as a nation - to pull drugs away from Canadians, then no. And no again. 

Perhaps it’s time that Americans use the Canadian method of price regulation. “The reason for the discrepancy is because Canada regulates drug prices through the quasi-judicial Patented Medicine Prices Review Board designed to prevent gouging...In the U.S., market forces are the lay of the land.” 


In speaking to the character of Canada, I would like to thank the Canadian who invented insulin: “Banting famously sold his patent for $1 because he believed his discovery belonged to the world and not for profit.”

I hope America takes Banting’s message and actions to heart and creates a system where citizens can access drugs at a fair price. However, when it comes to pilfering Canadian drugs on a large scale, Canadians have clearly said, sorry but no.

In case our response is misunderstood, translated into American speak, the answer is, “Hell no.”

10 April 2019

The Border


Don Winslow's The Force made my top-ten list for 2017, and his new novel The Border is already on my 2019 list. If you're familiar with his work, you can guess why; if you're not, how come?
The Border is the third book in a trilogy about the Mexican drug wars that began with The Power of the Dog in 2005 and continued with The Cartel in 2015. These are decidedly unsentimental. This ain't the Mexico of mariachis and margaritas. This is a landscape of sangre y muerte, bitter enmities and brute force.



The thing here is that it's almost impossible to write about the drug war without getting political. We've long had an abusive relationship with Mexico, and American attitudes have been condescending from the start, going back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - which Mexico has always regarded as a humiliation. Mexico in American popular culture is caricature, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa, Cinco de Mayo a sales pitch for Corona. But not to recognize our part in this dynamic isn't just turning our backs on history, it's dangerously delusional. The most basic fact of the drug business is that the U.S. represents an enormous market, and the supply chain is a growth industry. Secondly, we're talking big money, and the reach of the cartels is long. This leads to institutional corruption, to the degree that Mexico is close to being a failed state, although to imagine the problem is limited to the Mexican legal and political machinery is ridiculous. Thirdly, the War on Drugs itself is an established enterprise. We commit huge resources to it, and nobody wants to jeopardize that. We've created a toxic, symbiotic relationship.



Is any of this a surprise, or up for debate? I'd think it was Narcotics 101, but in some circles, apparently, the mechanics of Cause and Effect are disputed. For example, you can give billions in military aid to the government of Guatemala, say, for drug eradication. When that government uses the training and weapons to turn their military and police into engines of political repression, it's a little disingenuous of us to be shocked when thousands of refugees show up on our doorstep.

It's to Don Winslow's credit that he shows us the political dimensions to the story without taking sides, and shows us the personal cost, too. You can tell he's in a fury, but he's not writing a polemic. These are novels about choice and consequence, moral confusion, self-destruction, and even redemption. It's a story about internal conflict, and interdependence, Mexican and American.



Writing about what Jeff Parker has called The Iron River, the drugs and human traffic coming north, the money and guns moving south, it's hard not to tell a story that resonates. Jeff has done it, Don Winslow has done it, I've certainly tried. But none of us has any prescription.

This isn't the first time I've quoted Porfirio Diaz. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

28 January 2018

Who'd a Thought?


SOUTH DAKOTA - East River

It was Super Bowl Sunday 1980, when the bartender paged me to the phone. My boss was calling to let me know that a four-engine aircraft had come down in a wheat-stubble field just west of the Missouri River during the late afternoon. He then made a strong suggestion that I go to the scene.

SOUTH DAKOTA - West River

Just as the sun was peering over the horizon, I drove up out of a shallow ravine and there in the wheat-stubble field sat a four-engine aircraft with oil slicks from each engine dripping off the aft edge of both wings. The plane's fuselage was loaded with bales of marijuana, 26,000 pounds of the stuff.

As we later pieced it together, it seems that a group of entrepreneurs had purchased a couple of four-engine aircraft in Spain and had at least one of them flown to Panama where it was worked on. According to regulations, whenever a plane departed the airport in Panama, it was supposed to file a flight plan as to its destination, however there is an exception to that rule if the flight crew was merely going to take off, fly around to check out the maintenance work and then immediately land. So, that's what the aircrew told the tower they were going to do. They took off like they'd said, but then kept on going south, all the way to a clandestine airstrip in Colombia, an airstrip guarded by Colombian Army soldiers. Corruption at its finest.

The plane got loaded with pot bales and the aircrew was going through a pre-flight check list, when a jeep load of soldiers drove up and told the pilot to take off NOW. The pilot politely explained that it was too early to leave, that he had a certain two-hour window in which he was to take off in order to arrive at his destination at the correct time. At that point the conversation deteriorated.  The Colombian soldiers pointed their automatic weapons at the pilot and insisted it was time for him to depart their clandestine airstrip. Not having any weapons of his own, the pilot quickly cranked his engines and took off. The tenseness of this experience rattled the aircrew's nerves enough that shortly after wheels up on the landing gear, they commenced the consumption of rum.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, the plane lost oil pressure. This necessitated the crew chief hooking up a 55-gallon barrel of oil and hand-pumping oil to each of the four engines. They entered U.S. airspace at the Texas border and allegedly flew north over Omaha, Nebraska, over SAC Headquarters without our Air Force scrambling fighter jets to intercept them. So much for our national border security in 1980.

Meanwhile, the ground crew, out of Minneapolis, was busy that late afternoon, laying out a landing strip in the wheat-stubble field with lights hooked up to car batteries, when they suddenly heard the approach of a large aircraft. They immediately got on their radio and told the airplane they had arrived too early and therefore were supposed to fly into North Dakota and return after dark before landing. However, the pilot having been threatened with automatic weapons, having consumed a quantity of rum for his nerves, and tired from having flown a leaky aircraft for several hours in air space he wasn't cleared to be in, made a heated reply, something to the extent of they were landing now, so get the hell out of the way. And, they did.

Airplane Number
South Dakota people are friendly folk and have a tendency to help people in distress, thus the ice fishermen on the Missouri River (America's true first line of national border defense) saw the airplane come down in the field, and in their concern for their fellow man, they immediately put down their fishing poles and drove over to assist these unfortunate souls downed in the middle of nowhere. Turned out, the aircrew members were not grateful for this offered assistance. The fishermen became suspicious and one brave guardian of America's borders let the air out of the plane's front tire, and state radio then got a call.

Now, the pilot, having been previously involved in these types of operations, had it in his contract that he would be driven to a motel to wait out the unloading process, after which he would be driven back to the wheat-stubble field and would then fly out the airplane. He never went back. Also, a fuel tanker and a flatbed semi with hay bales on the trailer were on a side road nearby to refuel the aircraft and offload the pot bales to then be concealed among the hay bales. They never got to perform their functions.

That's me in brown coveralls
and black wool watch cap
Back at the wheat-stubble field, seeing that all was not going according to plan, the ground crew scattered into the hills. Being city boys, they were not suitably prepared to spend the night in the great outdoors. By morning, most of them stumbled out as best they could to country roads. Cold, shivering, some with hay sticking out of their hair and clothes from burrowing into hay stacks to keep from freezing, these future felons begged to get arrested just to get warm again. For them, their grand pot plane adventure was over. Their court adventure was about to begin.

A few months later, DCI Agent Tommy Del Grosso and I flew down to Tampa, rented a car and drove over to a county jail where the pilot had taken up temporary residence. He agreed to talk to us if we'd take him out for a real meal. Guess he didn't care much for jail cuisine. Tommy and I signed him out in leg irons and took him to a local restaurant. When his meal came, I watched him pick up the salt shaker and pour it all over his salad. Having not seen this act before, I inquired as to what he was doing. His explanation was that it was terribly hot in that Florida jail, no air-conditioning for the summer heat, therefore the inmates sweated a lot and the jailers did not provide any salt or salt tablets, so he was taking this opportunity to load up. We got a lot of details from him on the smuggling operation, so he was worth the price of a meal and an empty salt shaker.

In the end, we had an airplane from Spain, flown out of Panama by an aircrew from Florida and loaded with marijuana from Colombia. The ground crew, fuel tanker and flatbed semi came from Minnesota, The wheat-stubble field was scouted out by a local boy from West River. A group of Eskimos from Alaska helped fund this pot plane endeavor, and if all had gone well, then three more smuggling flights were planned.

It was several years later, when I learned from another source that one of the higher up pot plane conspirators, that we didn't know about at the time, who was from the Dutch Antilles, took a long walk off one of the upper floors of a high rise in Singapore. The rumor in the drug world at the time was that someone in upper management wanted to ensure that his own name never got mentioned for some of their clandestine marijuana deals.

In retrospect, will we ever win this war on drugs? Probably not, but then most of us working agents figured the best we could do on the streets was to try to keep the lid on the garbage can.

                                                                           #

On September 30, 2017, my old boss and I took a road trip to Pierre, South Dakota, to attend the first and only Pot Plane Reunion. I got to meet and shake hands with the now 98 year old rancher/ice fisherman who let the air out of the plane's front tire. Also listened to the defense attorney who represented the pilot from Florida all those years ago. Unfortunately, too many law enforcement and others who had participated in the case had already passed on and there was one more of us who probably wouldn't make it to January in order to have the reunion on the actual anniversary date.

South Dakota. Super Bowl Sunday. A wheat-stubble field. Who'd a thought?

10 December 2017

Good Drug, Bad Drug


by Mary Fernando

I would like to introduce my colleague: an Emergency Room doctor with a passion for crime novels. He is a father and an all around good guy who saves lives regularly. He is also a passionate fan of crime novels and has some interesting ideas about murder. I will call him Emergency doctor Extraordinaire or EE for short.

My interview with EE was wide-ranging, but one of the issues he discussed at length was fentanyl - a drug that we hear about daily as a killer of addicts. In EE’s hands, fentanyl is transformed into a character, a noble one that has fallen into disrepute, and finally becomes a murderer of one person at a time, or many in one fell swoop.

Let me tell you EE’s story of fentanyl: the good guy gone horribly wrong.

Although fentanyl has been in the news as a deadly street drug, it has far nobler origins. Since the 1960s, fentanyl has been used as a pain reliever when other opioids aren't strong enough. About 50 - 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is used for cancer pain and thank goodness we have it. In the hands of a doctor who prescribes the right dosage, it is a safe and decent drug. I stress the word decent, because if you haven't seen a person screaming in pain, then you have no idea how relieving this pain is the height of decency and good medicine.

However, if the dose of fentanyl is too high it can cause death. Fentanyl binds with opioid receptors in the brain that give a sense of well being. The problem is that these same opioid receptors are found in the area of the brainstem that controls breathing. So, breathing - essential to living - can be shut down by this same sense of well being - everything is fine it says - no oxygen needed. A high dose of fentanyl gives people such a sense of well being that they forget to breathe.

That last sentence should give us all pause: smothering while surrounded by air. For those of us who write about murder, the focus is always justice - righting a wrong. The murderer is that vile, unsavoury creature to be chased down and brought to justice. However, not all methods of murder are equal and, I would argue, the method of murder is a character in itself. And you will find few viler methods of murder than fentanyl and smothering a victim in air.

So, back to my EE and his thoughts: ‘In a fentanyl naive patient, it can kill at much smaller doses, so a patch that is therapeutic for cancer patients, can kill someone who has never received fentanyl.’
As with all drugs, a tolerance develops. So, patches, clear and small, can be put on the skin of a victim who is fentalyn naive. EE thinks a nicotine patch or other patch could easily hide it and be removed after. Another intriguing method of delivery is a nasal spray - so perhaps a method of substituting that for Aunt Gertrude’s sinus irrigation? Would this come up on an autopsy? EE responds by saying, “At first glance it would look like someone had a heart attack and died.”

This also brings up the issue of getting fentanyl. Healthcare workers can pretend to give it and store it up. Even a couple of patches could kill an opioid naive victim. Or there is always the street market.
EE pointed out a very frightening and immensely writeable option: weaponizing of carfentanyl. This drug is 100X more potent than fentanyl, and as much as 10,000 times stronger than morphine. There is the frightening scenario of mass murder. Carfentanyl’s deadly potential comes as no surprise to the various countries that have experimented for decades with weaponizing this synthetic opioid.
Although never officially confirmed, it was reported that the Russian military pumped aerosolized carfentanyl into a theatre to incapacitate the armed Chechens who took more than 850 people hostage in 2002. In this event, more than 120 hostages died.

This has thriller written all over it. An aerosolized form can kill many - how about a chase to find the carfentanyl and those who plan to use it?

If a character can be a focus- so can the weapon of choice. There is something poignant about a noble drug, developed to ease the extreme suffering of patients, being turned into a killer. Worse, this killer can then massacre thousands. It is a noble character gone wrong. And the making of a crime novel. Or a thriller.

30 July 2017

Into the Jungle


Khun Sa
photo by Satham Pairoah
From roughly 1963 until 1996, a man with the chosen name of Khun Sa operated as an opium warlord in the region of Southeast Asia known as The Golden Triangle. This triangle consisted of a mountainous jungle area involving three countries: Burma, Laos and Thailand. The land was populated by many people of different ethnic groups, several of which were hill tribes. For centuries, Turks from the west, Mongols from the north and various waves of Chinese out of Yunnan Province had invaded this land and absorbed the local inhabitants. As a result, a great number of languages and dialects were spoken here. Religions ranged from Muslim to Buddhist to animalistic and variations.

#1 "Across the Salween"
AHMM Nov 2013
Khun Sa, which means Prosperous Prince in the Shan language, was a man with a murky past and a strong future. Most historians agree that he was born of a Chinese father and a woman from the Shan hill tribe in Burma. He lived in an atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances among the various opium armies where only the strong and cunning survived. And, he was a survivor, but like the Germans in World War II, he eventually found that he couldn't fight a war on two fronts at the same time. The Burmese Army had finally squeezed his Shan Army into a small area where he had his back to a river. Being a survivor, he surrendered to the Burmese government and went on to become a thriving businessman in his retirement from opium warlord status.

opium field in Burma
After creating four successful series for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (two other potential series didn't make the I'd-like-to-buy-it list), I was searching for something new to write. My first acceptance with AHMM ("Once, Twice, Dead")  had been set in the Golden Triangle at a time when the magazine's previous editor was looking for stories with an exotic background. This one was written as a standalone  with the protagonist not being a good candidate to start a series, however, the Golden Triangle was an intriguing background for a series. I'd been to Vietnam in 1967-68 (in-country in the highlands), so I had a feel for the area, plus reports on the mountain opium smugglers had crossed my desk over the years during my main career, and I now had a Chinese historian living next door at my current residence. True, his English isn't always the best, but his wife who speaks five languages, to include Mandarin and English, makes for an excellent translator when he looks up internet facts for the Chinese version of history's events, which are not always the same as the English version of the same happening.

#2 "Elder Brother"
AHMM Jan/Feb 2015
Then, I began brainstorming to come up with characters and story lines conducive to the Golden Triangle. With such a background location already rife with treachery, corruption and violence, it was easy to implement our frequently used writing technique of What If?  Since he real opium warlord supposedly came from a mixed race family, what if my White Nationalist Chinese (KMT) story warlord had two sons, one half-Chinese/half-Shan hill tribe and the second son was pure-blood Chinese. In oriental culture, the elder brother tends to have dominance, but a pure-blood considers himself as better than a mongrel half-breed. It now becomes a conflict between Elder Brother (the half-Chinese/half-Shan) and the younger pure-blood Chinese.

poppy dripping opium sap
from cut during harvest
Naturally, the elder brother is raised in the jungle and is comfortable in those surroundings, while the younger brother has grown up in the British school system in Hong Kong. The younger brother, our protagonist for this series, has studied Julius Caesar, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, yet has no knowledge of jungle survival. After his mother died in Hong Kong, the younger son (as a young adult) finds himself taken out of the civilized world and transplanted to a jungle camp in the mountains of Southeast Asia. As his opium warlord father says, it is time he learned the family business and made his own way in the world.

#3 "On the Edge"
AHMM Oct 2015
Elder Brother has the position of Staff Captain and is in command of some Shan Army troops, part of his father's army. The younger brother has the rank of Sub-lieutenant and is in command of some of his father's Kuomintang troops (KMT), the old White Nationalist Chinese soldiers originally under Chiang Kai-Shek that went south out of Yunnan Province after Mao's Red Army chased them out of China during their civil war. And, as the KMT generals said after being stranded in Burma, an army needs an income and opium was handy.

Woman of the Mon tribe
Thus, we are presented with two half-brothers from different backgrounds, who have no love for each other, not to mention that only one of the brothers can inherit the position of opium warlord upon their father's demise. The competition begins and the reader has a front row seat on the safety of the sidelines to see every move made by the warring brothers, though sometimes the reader should look below the surface of what appears to be happening. Not all the enemies are within the family; other organizations and opposing opium warlords are also seeking any advantage they can take.
#4 "Making Merit"
AHMM July/Aug 2017

So far, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan has purchased five stories in the Shan Army series with #5 being "The Chinese Box", while one more manuscript, #6 "Reckoning with Your Host," is soon to be submitted to her e-slush pile.

To add spice to each story, old Chinese proverbs are often quoted in dialogue by our protagonist. Sometimes these sayings can be taken at face value, other times the wording may be twisted to fit the circumstances. Any way you look at it, the ride should be a new adventure for readers into a world that once truly existed. Root for whichever side you like, they are still people you wouldn't want to marry your sister or daughter. And if you should be unwise enough to take one home for supper, be aware that the pain between your shoulder blades could be the steak knife missing from your silverware.


Sleep well, and be glad these real life characters are on the other side of the world.

19 January 2017

An Addict's Life


by Eve Fisher

Divine in Heaven T-shirt.jpg
Divine
(Source)
I grew up in Southern California in the 60's, which explains a lot. (Thank-fully, there was no Facebook, and no cell phones that took pictures, so I can deny everything.)  As I've said before, it was an interesting time and place to be a teenager.  There's nothing like starting off in a place where there are people of every ethnicity and religion.  (I still love the good juicy mix of people that you can only find in a multi-cultural city.)  Where people still might not be officially out of the closet - although wearing great designer drag - but the euphemisms were very thin and nobody was fooling anyone. (I learned about Jim Nabors when I was ten, and it didn't bother me a bit.) Where cult-shops were on offer everywhere you looked (which is why I know a cult when I see one, even if it's called a church, a party, a membership, or a club).  Where you were never sure if what was going on was reality or someone shooting a movie/tv show (now that could get a little weird...).

And then there were drugs.  Everywhere, oceans of them, both on and off-label, as it were.  I remember when I went to junior high, and the girls' bathroom reeked of what I quickly found out was not just cigarettes (my parents smoked), but also marijuana.  Reds and whites (downers and uppers) were widely available. And other things.  And wide recreational use was helped by the fact that both my junior high and high school were outdoor campuses.  Literally.

Only the actual classrooms and the auditorium were indoors.  The lockers were under the equivalent of concrete carports; the cafeteria was a row of vending machines (they even had burritos, which we all somehow ate and survived...) under their own concrete carport, and there were metal tables (never enough) under their own sheds.  The idea was that we students would dine and relax and run playfully on the wide and spreading lawns.  And we did.  Just not the way they [officially] planned.

Now, my personal experience in life is that almost all children and teenagers, given half a chance to run amok, will.  And in Southern California, where the weather was good and the teachers were worn out...   So freedom, space, opportunity...  most of us took it.

There is a period, from say 12 to 25, where people will do as much drinking, drugging, etc. as they can.  Whether or not they really feel like it.  Those of you who have ever worked at a candy store or a pizza place and been told, "eat all you want" will know how after a while, you don't really feel like it anymore, but you keep doing it because it's free, man, and you're supposed to want this stuff... Most people, after a few weeks/months of gorging will stop.  They may never want the candy, etc. ever again.  But during that time of gorging, you'd be really hard pressed to figure out who's an addict/alcoholic and who isn't.  I know anyone who watched me from 14 to early 20s would have been sure I was headed to rehab.  I drank, I smoked, I did some prescription drugs (my parents had bottles of both booze and Darvon everywhere), and later, when I left home, I did everything I could get my hands on. Just about everyone I knew did the same.

And then, it got old.  I quit doing pretty much anything but pot, alcohol, and cigarettes when I turned 18.  I quit smoking dope a couple of years later, when I figured out that it did nothing for my writing but make me think it was better than it was.  And then there was the early morning (2:30 PM) after the last big New Years' party of my life, where I turned to my new husband and said, "There has got to be a better way to start a new year than this."  And from then on, I was a social drinker.  One glass of wine, two at the most, and I'm done, thanks.

So, if you want to figure out if your teenager is an addict or alcoholic, chances are you really should wait until they're in their 20's to make a final call.  (I know, I know, what if you can't wait that long? Go to Al-Anon.  I am dead serious.  It can save your sanity, and perhaps your life.  Check HERE for a meeting near you.)

So, everything worked out great for me, right?  Yes, it did.  Except that I had one addiction I could not shake:  cigarettes.

Marlboro - my brand for years
Now this didn't bother me for years.  I loved smoking.  I loved the taste of it, the feel of it, the style of it, watching the smoke curl up to the ceiling, the activity, the movement of my hands, and the knowledge that I always had something to do.  It warmed me when I was cold, cooled me off when I was hot, tamped down the hunger pangs, tasted sooo good after a meal, fit in perfectly with my reading addiction (see my blog of 1/5/17), and was somewhere between the best thing that ever happened to me and my pacifier.  Smoking was entwined in almost everything I did, in almost every moment of my day.  I didn't know and I didn't care whether or not I was addicted: smoking was GREAT.

Fast forward twenty, thirty years.  I'm in my 40s, and I'm starting to feel it.  Colds sink into my chest and stay there.  I kind of want to quit, although I don't actually say it.  I'm struggling to cut down, to keep it under a pack, which I manage, and then under half a pack.  If I only smoke half a pack, that's fine, right?  It's better than nothing, and I still can't imagine being without cigarettes.  How do people live without smoking? How did I?  I can't remember it?  I can't envision it - not without a panic attack.  I am hooked, although I'm still in denial...

In my 50s, and I want to quit, God do I want to quit.  I can't deny it anymore:  my lungs are foggy, I'm coughing too much, my wind is gone, this is not good.  My journals are all about my struggle with addiction:  I tried Chantix (didn't work); I tried tapering down even more; I tried to quit outright, and failed, because I kept being ravaged by desire for a cigarette...  and I couldn't not give in.  I kept doing that years.  Tapering off, cutting down, going back, quitting, going back, on and on and bloody on...  I couldn't live with out that damned cigarette.  And the next one after that.  And the one after that...

Image result for horehound drops
Not me, but close enough...
(Source)
When I did quit, it was a miracle, plain and simple. My husband had a heart attack, and was hospitalized for 3 days.  I spent those days in the heart hospital with him, and I knew that that meant the nicotine was physically out of my system.  So - now or never, baby! And, by the grace of God, along with a sack of horehound drops big enough to choke a small hippo and a stack of straws, I quit.

TIP OF THE DAY:  If you cut a straw in half, it is the exact size and shape of a cigarette, and not only can you can puff away on them, but it fills that space in your hands, and that hand-to-mouth action of smoking, that cigarettes held for years.

There were times I thought I would die.  I'd walk by someone smoking and smell that warm, wonderful smell and practically reach down their shirt pocket for a smoke.  Something stressful would happen, and I would walk around the house puffing madly on that damned straw and thinking "this is lame."  And there would be that time, late afternoon, work mostly done, sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and my heart breaking because that had been the best cigarette of the day.  (That and the one after lunch, the one after dinner, the one after that, and...)  But, through the grace of God, I bulled through.  For one thing, I kept telling myself, "Fine, go ahead and have one.  But if you do, you'll just have to quit again."  And I knew I could never go through this again and make it...

Skull with a Burning
Cigarette -
Vincent Van Gogh
And now, I have over 6 years smoke free (after 40 years of smoking). God is great.  Huzzah!

Why am I telling you all this?  Because addiction is real.  Addiction is a disease.  I learned that the hard way.  There are still times when I want a cigarette.  There is a part of my mind that - against my will, I swear to God - likes to look back with nostalgia and regret for the good old days of smoking.  I've got my addiction, like a gorilla, bound up in a corner in my mind, but if I give it an inch, it will come roaring out and eat me alive again.  I know that.  And I'm terrified of that.

And at the same time, I'm so glad.  Because otherwise, how would I understand what it's like for alcoholics? drug addicts? addictive gamblers? other addicts? How could I relate to the guys at the pen, most of whom have been wrestling (and mostly losing) the battle with the gorilla for years?

It's not a matter of will power.  It's not a matter of moral fiber.  It's a mental/physical disease that takes a long, hard time to uproot.  That sometimes is never uprooted.  That is waiting, always, to lure you back again, into one more dance with the devil.  And the worst part of it is the mental, not the physical.  It's the mind - that devious, malicious, faux-nostalgic, faux-friendly, faux-helpful f***ing mind that still screws with me, and that I'll have to watch out for until my dying day.  And so will every other addict.

Image may contain: textMaybe someday our laws will reflect that.  As I've said before, mental illness has been pretty much made illegal in this country.  Rather than getting treatment, it's expected that the family will get their loved one the help they need -
(a brief intermission while all of us in Al-Anon or other family support groups have a long, hard, bitter laugh - again, HERE's the link to Al-Anon, and to NAMI
that the family will somehow get their loved one to the treatment they need, make sure they take their meds (if any exist), and keep them out of trouble.  It doesn't work.  (In fact, usually, it's the people closest to you that you can help the least.) Allow me to repeat that:  IT DOESN'T WORK.

Addiction, like any other mental illness, like any other illness, needs professional help from the get-go, not shame and secrets and expectations that do nothing but drive it further underground.  And then, when the addict finally does something that lands them in the hospital and/or prison and/or the morgue everyone acts so shocked!  How could that happen?

Because there isn't enough treatment.  Because there aren't enough facilities.  Because there aren't enough programs.  Because none of them, without really GOOD insurance, are affordable.  Because we don't believe, as a nation, that addiction is an illness, that mental illness is really an illness, and that treatment / medication / therapy really works.  Instead, we keep talking this BS about willpower, and then, when people's lives have crumbled, we say stupid things like, "I hope they get the help they need."

Maybe.  Someday.  In the meantime, I am so fortunate, and I know it.  


08 October 2015

The First Cartel


Well, probably not the first, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main drug cartels were selling opium to Asia, and shipping the money home to Britain and the United States and the Netherlands. And I'm not talking about little dribs and drabs:  in the mid-1800's, the opium trade provided one-third of British colonial revenues, and those millions of pounds (trillions in today's money) were just what actually made it home to the Crown.
The East India Company was the major player in India, where the opium was grown and processed. It was a private British joint-stock venture that effectively ruled India from 1757-1858.  Raw opium was processed into the smokeable stuff for the China market (in Western Europe, people preferred drinkable laudanum) - chests weighing about 133 pounds each, which went for $1,000 dollars (about $25,000 in today's money.)  The East India Company established a trading post in Canton, China in 1699, but leased out the trading rights to the trading companies, or hongs, which took the opium from Canton and smuggled it into China (via rivers, etc.).  The major players were:

Jardine and Matheson
  • Jardine, Matheson and Company, a/k/a The Honorable Company, was founded in 1832 in Canton with the partnership of William Jardine and James Matheson, both University of Edinburgh graduates. They were always the biggest trading company, or hong, and (having diversified heavily in the 20th century) are still going strong in Asia, even though they're incorporated out of Bermuda.  (Their official website is interesting: http://www.jardines.com/  NOTE: Jardine-Matheson was fictionalized - and I would say cleaned up to the point of unrecognizability - by James Clavell in Tai-Pan.)  
  • Dent & Company, another British smuggler under Thomas Dent's leadership.
  • The Dutch East India Company, about which I know tragically little.  
  • And the Americans:  Russell & Company was the major player.  One of the senior officers was Warren Delano, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  (In case you're wondering where some of the Roosevelt money came from...)  The other officer, Samuel Russell, was filthy rich and left a Russell Trust, which (among other things) is the original source of endowment funding for the Skull & Bones Society at Yale.  
Jardine-Matheson, Dent & Company, and Russell & Company all began - unofficially - as agents of the East India Company, and then for the British government.  They also took on more "official" jobs. James Matheson was the Danish consul for years, Thomas Dent the Sardinian consul, even though neither were from either country.  And they became hugely rich.

You see, up until the early 1800s, there was a major trade imbalance with China (and you thought that was a modern phenomenon!).  There were a lot of reasons:  China wasn't particularly interested in trade, they kept the British and other merchants hemmed into specific treaty ports and didn't let them into the rest of the country, 90% of their population was too poor to buy anything, and finally, the British didn't have much that they wanted.  Except silver.  So, for 130 years, China sold the West silk, porcelain, navigation equipment, firecrackers, and above all, tea.  And since in those days trade involved either hard goods or hard cash, the British were being drained of silver at an alarming rate. And then someone got the bright idea to sell them opium.


Charles Elliot 
The fact that opium was illegal in China didn't matter.  The British smuggled it in, as much as 1,400 tons of opium a year.  And, as the opium flowed in, the silver flowed out (in 1800's dollars, $21,000,000 a year; in today's terms, multiply that by about 25,000, making it $52.5 trillion a year), destabilizing the Chinese economy, not to mention creating a huge number of hopeless drug addicts.  Eventually even the Imperial Court - locked up in the Forbidden City in distant Beijing - launched a war on drugs. The Emperor sent an imperial commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton, where he seized 2.6 million pounds of opium and burned it.  (A lot of boats sailed and held themselves downwind of that fire...)

Now the British charge d'affaires in Canton was Brian Thornton's and my favorite 19th century British agent, Captain Charles Elliot, R.N.  He basically said that that opium (despite being illegal) was the property of the British crown and the Chinese needed to reimburse the merchants.  They wouldn't, Elliot seized Hong Kong for starters, and the war was on.

There aren't too many wars which have been fought for the specific purpose of requiring the losing nation to legalize drugs.  The Opium Wars were about the only ones I can think of.  And, in terms of size and wealth disparities, it was the equivalent of the Colombian government aligning with the Colombian drug cartels to declare war on the United States in order to legalize cocaine in the 1970s. And winning.  And, getting the following results:
Sir Robert Hart
  • China had to open more treaty ports to foreigners.
  • China had to give Britain Hong Kong permanently.
  • China had to pay a $21,000,000 indemnity for all the costs of the war.  (In today's terms, $52 trillion.)
  • China had to give the British the right to set, control, and collect its own tariffs.  NOTE:  The Imperial Maritime Customs Service was manned by British officers from 1854-1950.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Look, it takes a long, long time to extort $52 trillion from any country, much less the additional revenues that Britain consistently expected. Over time, besides collecting maritime trade taxes and managing domestic customs administration, the IMCS collected maritime trade taxes, managed domestic customs administration, postal administration, harbor and waterway management, weather reporting, and published monthly Returns of Trade.  The most famous Inspector-General was Sir Robert Hart, who held the post from 1863-1911.  
  • All foreigners got the equivalent of diplomatic immunity (called extraterritoriality back then); the right to be tried only by its own consul (i.e., whichever Jardine-Matheson-Dent was there). What really stuck in the Chinese craw was that this was extended to any Chinese employees of foreigners, making them suddenly beyond Chinese law.
  • China had to allow foreigners to travel freely into the Chinese interior and live in Beijing.
  • China had to legalize opium.
  • China had to legalize Christianity.  (You may wonder why China was upset about this.  I'll talk more about that, and the one and only Karl Gutzlaff, missionary and opium trader, in another post.)
Opium Den, unromanticized by Hollywood

Imagine the United States having to submit to Colombian rule.  Or any other...  Imagine having a foreign power in charge of our taxes and tariffs for almost a hundred years.  Imagine having our country carved up into "spheres of influence", until there's hardly anything officially Chinese left. And now wonder why the Chinese have viewed, and still view, the West with suspicion.  We think we have excellent reasons to distrust China.  I'd say that if we do, it's called revenge.

12 July 2015

Techno-dull


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.

Anonymous

A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.

Unsubtle

Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”

Verisimilitude

The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is 218.108.149.373, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

07 June 2015

Dread Pirate Roberts


by Leigh Lundin

Day in history, 1 October 2013: A half-cocked Texas Tea Party senator shut down the federal government for seventeen days. The resulting outcry in Washington, panic on Wall Street, and consternation in world markets eclipsed another important news story. Outside of crime and tech circles, the public barely took notice of the seizure of Silk Road, the largest, most far-reaching criminal enterprise in the world, and the arrest of its young founder, Ross Ulbricht, aka, Dread Pirate Roberts.

A few days ago, a judge sentenced Ulbricht to two life terms.

Joshuah Bearman and Tomer Hanuka of Wired Magazine have created a fascinating and comprehensive article. I recommend checking their story, part 1 and part 2. Their article reads like a crime novella… and a Greek tragedy.

Recap

The hallmark of a Greek tragedy is hubris, encapsulated in mythology because of human (and human-like) failing. The putative Greek hero ascends, attaining glory and fame, only to be brought low by his (or her) own weaknesses and arrogance.

Such happened to Ross Ulbricht, an entrepreneur, ardent libertarian, former Eagle Scout and non-violent idealist… until the day he wasn’t. He began what he called a libertarian experiment, an on-line drug bazaar, a better eBay than eBay. He named the enterprise Silk Road after the ancient Asian trade routes.

Silk Road didn’t sell only drugs, they sold collectibles, electronics, and other goods much like Craig’s List. The web site also featured Silk Road chat, Silk Road forums, Silk Road wiki, Silk Road exchange, Silk Road credit union, Silk Road market, Silk Road bookstore, and Silk Road libertarian musings by its founder.

Ulbricht promoted trust, partly through anonymity, and partly through BitCoin exchange, but also through efforts to see customers were treated right. He devised an on-line escrow (which eBay should have done years ago), provided reviews and customer support. Ulbricht is noted for writing in his journal “This is more than a business to me. It’s a revolution and is becoming my life’s work.”

Security and anonymity were provided by software originally created by the US Navy. TOR, an acronym for The Onion Router, offered encryption for web sites behind the curtain that hides both legal and illegal activities, as seen in this video Inside the Dark Web or the recent movie, The Deep Web.

Ulbricht used a clever pseudonym as suggested by his mentor, Variety Jones. That alias was Dread Pirate Roberts, from the novel and subsequent film, The Princess Bride. In the story, Dread Pirate Roberts isn’t merely one person but, like Lee Falk’s The Phantom, a series of leaders who hand off the reins and the DPR name to a chosen successor when they become rich enough to retire. In conjunction with Silk Road, the sobriquet obscured who DPR was. Indeed many people believed Roberts was multiple people.

Operation Onion Peeler

The FBI geeks who went after the leader of Silk Road faced an intriguing challenge from a guy who made few mistakes… but a couple of errors was all it took. The digital police didn’t use a battering ram to get their man, they used finesse– or, as one described it, a form of ballet.

There’s little question Ulbricht ran Silk Road nor doubt he deserved a prison sentence for his misdeeds. But two life terms? The judge succumbed to pleas from the prosecutor to “send a message.”

Not all of us are fans of judicial messaging and over-sentencing, but a few other issues need to be considered. One is conspiracy and intent to commit the murder of at least one person and possibly five others who had stolen from the enterprise. That certainly shatters the image of the gentle idealist who wanted freedom for everyone.

However, the murder charge is murky. A Silk Road employee named Curtis Green had supposedly stolen $350,000. Ulbricht lamented how to handle it, writing that he didn’t want to use violence if Green would simply return the money. But Variety Jones, his mentor, urged Ulbricht to kill Green and referred to Green as the ‘organ donor’.

But the plot sickens. It turns out the money was actually stolen by Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges and facilitated by DEA agent Carl Force, who are being charged with the theft as well as other crimes, including laundering another half million dollars in BitCoins.

In other words, two federal agents stole funds using Green’s account, implicating him in the eyes of Ulbricht and moving him to homicide. One wonders if this constitutes entrapment, tipping Ulbricht over the edge of using violence to protect his interests. The only good part was that Green was in custody and not in imminent danger.

Ulbricht’s attorney is appealing the verdict.

23 January 2015

Clan Labs


Several vehicles streak down the road. Each vehicle is loaded with agents wearing black Nomex gear, Kevlar helmets and turtle vests. At a predesignated location, they screech to a halt. Agents rapidly exit from the vehicles and take up assigned positions around the building. The door goes down by means of a handheld ram or sledgehammer and each room inside is secured. Any people are handcuffed, searched and immediately removed from the premises. Now, the agents back out without touching any potential evidence.
Why not touch the potential evidence? They've just hit an operating clandestine drug lab, a 'clan lab' in which case it is not safe to turn off any heating elements or disturb any chemical processes in any way until an expert takes over the situation. Chemicals can be explosive or even create deadly gases if handled incorrectly.

With the building secured, some of the agents change into white "bunny suits" which act as protection against chemical burns and contamination. Breathing apparatus may be required depending upon the air quality inside the rooms containing the clan lab. With the advancement of technology, agents can use "sniffing machines" to test the air before dismantling the lab setup. Now, the bunny suit team (sorry, no rabbit ears or cute bunny tail on these suits) along with a qualified chemist can enter the rooms and take photos and videos of the operation. The chemist and lead agent decide what equipment is collected and which chemicals are sampled as evidence. The rest is usually packed into 55 gallon metal drums to be destroyed rather than kept in an evidence locker until trial. After leaving the clan lab, the agents are showered down in a kid's portable swimming pool and their bunny suits are destroyed.

One source for recipes
If the image in your mind about these types of operations is a clean, tidy setup like the chemistry labs you used in high school and college, be advised that these setups are usually rare. The common clandestine lab is what's known as a "bucket lab" where plastic buckets and whatever glassware can be obtained is scrounged up to be used in very untidy surroundings. So if your total perception of the clan lab trade is from watching Breaking Bad, know that those type of guys are in the minority.

First off, there's the chemist, who knows what he's doing, and then there's the majority, who are merely "recipe readers." A recipe reader is a person who has learned all the necessary steps from a person in the know and can follow a chemical recipe, but does not truly understand how chemicals and chemistry work. This is the guy who decided a plastic bucket will work in some of the steps because he can't acquire lab grade equipment without attracting suspicion. This is the guy who when he runs out of a needed chemical will decide that a similar sounding chemical name will suffice. This is the guy who uses his own product, becomes over paranoid at strange sounds and discharges his firearm out the window whether anything is out there or not, or lights up a cigarette while washing the product with ether during a final step, or forgets he booby-trapped his lab against potential outsiders.

Available on the open market
This can be a short-lived occupation if you make the wrong mistake. Example: two gentlemen in California were using the red phosphorus and ephedrine method to make meth. One noticed that a glass beaker had cracked from too much heat. He promptly picked up the beaker and headed for the door. The second guy, also being a gentleman, held the door open for the first guy. Unfortunately, their step in the process produced phosgene gas. The gentleman holding the door didn't make it outside. [NOTE: if you have a sensitive mind, please skip the rest of this paragraph.] As for the one carrying the cracked beaker, he was found lying in the yard where he had stuffed mud down his throat while trying to stop the intense burning sensation in his lungs.

And of course, there is always the occasional explosion from improperly mixed chemicals, combining the wrong chemicals, or a spark from an electrical fan not lab grade equipment, not to mention that forgetful cigarette smoker who just has to inhale from one more coffin nail.

Since there is no quality control in these clan lab operations or afterwards, that means the buyer of these substances does not really know what he's getting and ingesting into his body. For instance, a meth lab in Washington had a faulty process which left lead in their finished product. Some customers subsequently expired from lead poisoning. Drugs are also diluted with various cutting agents such as baby laxative, milk sugar and arsenic to make them go further. Seems the arsenic helps provide a kick to some products, but since there is no quality control, who knows what percentage of the product is now arsenic? Of course, that may come out in a coroner's report, too late for the initial consumer.

Even with all this, the lure of large sums of money keeps seducing people into setting up clandestine laboratories. Guess they think nothing will happen to them personally. As for the street user, he's already addicted to the drug of his choice and is willing to take the chance on what he's buying. Helluvaway to live. Or to die.

27 April 2012

No, Thank You


Louis once asked in the Comments' Section how undercover operatives avoid using drugs. That's a common question, especially if you've watched some movies, such as The Professional, about bent law enforcement characters, such as Gary Oldham playing the part of an unhinged drug agent. The unspoken part of the above question is, or do you? Hey, even relatives have inquired, so I think nothing about being asked. In any case, Louis, this one's for you.

In the movies, characters, events, and actions are exaggerated for effect. This increases the High Stakes for the protagonist and thus tension for the audience. Almost anything goes, whether it's true to reality or not.

In real life, when it becomes known on the "blue telegraph" that a certain officer is using drugs, then his fellow officers will quit working with him because he risks being a dangerous liability to himself and to them. Depending upon the drug of choice, he may become hyper aggressive and uncontrollable (like Gary Oldman's character left photo). Neither the public nor that officer's supervisors will put up with that kind of activity for long. On the opposite end of the drug scale, his reflexes and judgment may slow down or become otherwise impaired, in which case no officer wants him as partner during arrests, raids or even common day incidents. Also, if during a court case, a defense attorney brings up the officer's use of illegal drugs, the judge will be outraged and the jury may decide that the defendant isn't much worse than the officer.

In later years, my agency came up with a cute trick. Realizing that ANYONE using drugs can become addicted, they created a special program. Any agent with a drug problem was encouraged to come forward and receive counseling and rehab for that addiction. The program was free, didn't cost the agent a single cent. Of course once an agent entered the program, he no longer had a job. Sure, the program would rehab him, but he was looking at a definite career change, and rightly so. There's a strong conflict of interest in using drugs and working the streets. Too many wrong possibilities in that scenario.

Okay, we've pretty much established that law enforcement and drug use don't go together, so how does an undercover avoid their use? That answer depends upon the circumstances. Here's a few personal anecdotes.

In the early years when I'd go into a head house to make a buy, I'd take a bottle of Boone's Farm along because more than likely there would be six or eight people sitting in a circle passing joints.
OPTION 1: I'm playing the part of a juicer, in which case I'd take a healthy swig and pass the bottle. The potential defendants were just happy I brought something to the party.
OPTION 2: I quickly found that when the joint came round to me, they were mainly looking to see if I readily took it or tried to come up with a lame excuse. In that case, once I took it in hand, they usually relaxed. I'd hold the joint in my right hand while I negotiated for whatever they were selling, quietly transfer the joint to my left hand for a while, and then pass it to the next guy who was waiting for his turn. They never seemed to notice I didn't use the stuff.
OPTION 3: If I happened to find one eagle-eyed guy keeping track of my actions, I could always cup my hand around the joint and go through the Cheech-and-Chong motions of holding my breath for a couple of minutes and making a fake show of exhaling with my head down. The appropriate statements for those occasions was, "That's good stuff." Conjuring & Distraction 101

Most dealers just assumed you were going to use their purchased product later, but there were other times when you got put to the test. Now, you had to get creative.

I was buying quantities of cocaine from an AWOL Marine who had every reason to be paranoid. He set it up for the deal to go down at his dining room table, and fronted off his girlfriend to make the actual first transfer of drugs for money. He sat on a couch in the living room where he faced me from a distance and observed. Probably had a pistol concealed in the seat cushions. I say this because one hand stayed out of sight.

Negotiations were pretty well finished. Then the girlfriend laid out a line on the table top and said, "You'd better try it first." That's one of those "Oh Crap!" moments.

Conveniently, the phone on the wall by the dining room table rang. She turned to answer it. I quickly leaned forward, scooped the powder line off the table with one hand and made loud snorting sounds. She heard the snorting noise and saw later that the powder was gone, which was good enough for her. As a plus, her movement ended up blocking the AWOL Marine's view of what I was doing. People often assume things based upon their expectations. Naturally, when those two stern looking grunts in full uniform from the Corps showed up to get their hands on their once missing associate, he quickly assumed a bleak expectation for his immediate future. Had to be a long ride to Leavenworth for that boy.

And of course, there was my informant who acquired a sudden case of reluctance during a case. "The dealer says if you're a federal agent, he'll be able to smell you out, and then he'll shoot us both."

"Well then, we'd best go see how good his nose is."

Having a slight sinus condition anyway, I tended to sniff from time to time, so now I deliberatly started sniffing loudly as soon as the door opened. Shortly after the introduction, and no longer trusting the informant to hold himself together, I cut the informant out and sent him packing. He was happy to go. The dealer and I proceeded to negotiate for several ounces of meth which was to progress to multi-pounds at a later date. All was agreed. Then the dealer laid out two lines of "crank." Since I had continued my sniffing act throughout our conversation, I now laid a story on him. "I'd like to join you, man, but the doc is doing a nose job on my nasal lining pretty soon. It's completely eaten through (a common occurrence for heavy snorters) and I can't snort anything for a while."
"I know what you mean," he said. "Do you mind if I snort your line then?"
"Help yourself."
After all, the stuff is still his until I buy it.

And, that's some of the ways of avoiding usage. but mainly, it's whatever you can come up with under the circumstances.

The most difficult times are when buying from heroin dealers. Every so often you'll get one of those cagey guys that wants you, as a first time buyer from him, to spike up a hit of his "smack" before he'll make a larger sale to you. Now, it's gun time. There are incidents of agents even going out third story windows to avoid being injected.

One more aspect to consider. There is no quality control in illegal drugs. Unethical dealers have been known to adulterate their product with arsenic, lead and other lethal chemicals. Users die every day from "hot shots." And, even if the product is "good," then all those movie detectives who are shown dipping their finger in the powder, tasting it and then pronouncing it as high grade should now all be rehab or other institutions.

Last story. I always wondered what happened to the Tribal Policeman who stopped a car of hippies decades ago on the Pine Ridge Reservation and found an open box of sugar cubes in their vehicle. "I know the sugar cubes didn't have any LSD dropped on them," he told me proudly, 'because I ate one and nothing happened." Now that's one heck of a field test, otherwise he could have ended up wandering the prairie philosophizing with buffalo, instead of reciting his car stop adventure to me at a law enforcement conference. Seemed to be a severe lack of judgment and training there.

Hope this answers the question. Nope, professional law enforcement and undercover agents don't do Dope.

Thanks, Louis. Anybody got any more good questions you'd like answered?