Operation Drug Merchant

The New York Times highlights the folly of the drug war policy of busting clerks in stores selling pseudoephedrine.

When they charged 49 convenience store clerks and owners in rural northwest Georgia with selling materials used to make methamphetamine, federal prosecutors declared that they had conclusive evidence. Hidden microphones and cameras, they said, had caught the workers acknowledging that the products would be used to make the drug.

But weeks of court motions have produced many questions. Forty-four of the defendants are Indian immigrants - 32, mostly unrelated, are named Patel - and many spoke little more than the kind of transactional English mocked in sitcoms.

So when a government informant told store clerks that he needed the cold medicine, matches and camping fuel to "finish up a cook," some of them said they figured he must have meant something about barbecue.

Law enforcement, or their informants come in, talking in slang, while the clerks are just trying to ring up a sale.

The biggest problem, defense lawyers say, is the language barrier between an immigrant store clerk and the undercover informants who used drug slang or quick asides to convey that they were planning to make methamphetamine.

"They're not really paying attention to what they're being told," said Steve Sadow, one of the lawyers. "Their business is: I ring it up, you leave, I've done my job. Call it language or idiom or culture, I'm not sure you're able to show they know there's anything wrong with what they're doing."

For the Indians, their lives largely limited to store and home, it is as if they have fallen through a looking glass into a world they were content to keep on the other side of the cash register.

"This is the first time I heard this - I don't know how to pronounce - this meta-meta something," said Hajira Ahmed, whose husband is in jail pending charges that he sold cold medicine and antifreeze at their convenience store on a winding road near the Tennessee border.

Some of the clerks were trying to follow the rules:

Operation Meth Merchant started, Mr. Nahmias said, with complaints from local sheriffs that certain stores were catering to the labs. Prosecutors paid confidential informants - some former convicts, others offered the promise of lighter punishment for pending charges - to buy products in stores in six counties beginning in early 2004, and drop hints that they were making drugs.

Defense lawyers said some of the defendants probably did know what they were doing when they sold the materials. But on several tapes, provided by the government to the lawyers, who played them for a reporter, it was not always clear that the people behind the counter understood.

....One recording captures an informant who walked into the Tobacco and Beverage Mart in Trenton, Ga., and asked for Pseudo 60, a particularly potent brand of cold medicine, which contains pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient of methamphetamine. The clerk, Mangesh Patel, 55, said the store no longer carried it. "Police guy came here said don't sell," Mr. Patel said. "Misuse. Public misuse."

The informant replied: "I know what they're doing with it, because that's what I'm going to do with it." "Yah," Mr. Patel replied, "public misuse."

When the informant found another bottle of pills that he said might work, Mr. Patel told him he could sell only two, under orders from "the police guy." The informant asked if his friend could come in and buy two more. "Yeah," Mr. Patel replied, "But I cannot sell two to one guy."

Come to America legally, get a job, work your tail off, sell the goods your boss has on the shelves and end up in jail. America. Prison nation.

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    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#1)
    by Kitt on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:54 PM EST
    No kidding, I'm getting kind of worried. During the winter I get sinus headaches and the one thing that works is Sudafed (or a derivative). Granted I don't usually stock up but I'm thinking if I buy a box a week for awhile I might have quite a stash for the upcoming 'sinus season.'

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#2)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:54 PM EST
    This seems extremely weird to me. Selling cold medicine and anti-freeze is bad? What happens in cold weather? Ans: people get colds and they need anti-freeze. The whole thing about things that can be legally sold also being illegal to sell is... crazy-making. Make the drug prescription only again, maybe, if it really must be controlled.

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#3)
    by kdog on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:55 PM EST
    In a word...insane. Always so quick to throw people in cages. Utterly mind boggling.

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#4)
    by jen on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:55 PM EST
    but selling guns is okeydokey?

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:55 PM EST
    Guns don't kill people, people do. I agree with this statement. But I'm supposed to believe sudafed kills people? C'mon.

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#6)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:55 PM EST
    From the link: "In one instance, Mr. Nahmias said, a store owner in Whitfield County pulled out a business card from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and told the [undercover informant who was buying large quantities meth precurser materials] 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."" For some, apparently it's: "Come to America legally, buy a business, work your tail off, deliberately break the law, and, not suprisingly, end up in jail." Without question, some of the prosecutions will fail or be dropped, and should be. But, also, some won't, and should not.

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#7)
    by Kitt on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:56 PM EST
    But I'm supposed to believe sudafed kills people? C'mon.
    Actually, kdog - there's a warning to limit the amount you ingest over a period of time. In other words, not every day a few times a day. Something to do with the liver or kidneys; I can't remember which since both are 'filtering' systems. I do know what you meant but just thought I'd throw that in there.

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#8)
    by Patrick on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:56 PM EST
    besides, it's no longer sudafed, it's chemically altered after the reduction reaction.
    Without question, some of the prosecutions will fail or be dropped, and should be. But, also, some won't, and should not.
    Nuff said.

    Re: Operation Drug Merchant (none / 0) (#9)
    by jackl2400 on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:56 PM EST
    Meth...meth...meth. Yeah, it's stupid, but what else is new? (See Slate for the story on whether meth is just the next big fake drug scare). Well, there is something new really, but it hasn't raised much interest in the US press or crime/civil liberties blogs such as this one. But it's big news in Canada - it's been frontpaged on every national newspaper there since it broke last Friday: the DEA-sponsored bust of Canada's biggest pot reform activist, Marc Emery, for selling pot seeds to Americans over the internet. The DEA/Justice Dep't. is seeking 20 years to life for a "crime" (selling seeds - "conspiracy to manufacture marihuana" in the view of the DEA) for a crime for which no one, including Emery, has been busted in the past 30 years in Canada. (Extradition laws require the offense to be regarded as a crime in both countries...we'll see how this plays out). Canadians -- even those who are not big fans of the unrepentant Abbie Hoffman-like Emery -- are as outraged over this invasion of their sovereignty as with the recent CIA rendition/terrorism cases such as Arar (the Canadian guy taken off the plane in New York and sent to Syria for interrogation). You can google the web for info on Marc Emery and to judge for yourself whether (1) this is an important story in Canada, despite being about despised stoners and druggies and (2) the vast majority of public and editorial opinion is outraged with the US and skeptical of the US-sponsored notion of greater "integration" of the law enforcement organs of the two countries. Unfortunately, you won't read much about the story here because our usual self-preoccupation with more important things which happen in the US blinds us to the importance and outrageousness of this action (which seems more directed at Emery's political activities and opposing the US sponsored pushback of their drug law liberalization initiatives under Czar John Walters. Emery has tugged on Superman's cape before, heckling Walters at a big speech he gave in Vancouver in 2002).