The Meth Epidemic [home page]
  • home page
  • meth in the body
  • Map: Meth at the State Level
  • The Faces of Meth
  • FAQs

The number three man at the Drug Enforcement Administration for many years, he talks about how in the mid-80s there were two potential solutions to stopping meth which, at the time, was still a small problem limited to the West Coast. One was to go after the chemical components that go into meth. The other was to regulate retail sales of cold and allergy medicines containing meth's key chemicals, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Both ideas met opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and were never fully tried.This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 20, 2005.

Talk about your realization in the early '80s that one of the most strategic law enforcement concepts for controlling certain illegal drugs was controlling the chemicals that went into making them.

Well .. at that time we had a lot of problems, but I noticed that something new was going on. In addition to the cocaine coming in from Colombia, we were beginning to see a lot of large seizures, a ton or more, of something called Quaalude pills.

I really wasn't familiar with that drug, so I called technical experts, and I said, "What the hell is this, and what's going on?" They explained to me what kind of drug it is. It's addicting; it's a depressant; its manufacture was then legitimately in the U.S. and so forth. And I said, "Well, how much?" They said, "Well, about 7 tons a year." I said: "Well, how the hell can that be? We've already seized 7 tons in the last three or four weeks."

... A lot of people have forgotten about the Quaalude problem.  One time it was as big as the heroin or cocaine problem, and people wonder why it's gone away. Well, it's gone away because we beat them ...we found a method.  ...

So at that point I realized there was some big phenomenon going on that we really weren't tracking, and I began to make inquiries and put the evidence together to present to the boss. I discovered that these tablets were coming in in these big shipments, usually by airplane, just like cocaine, in almost the same way, and probably some of the same traffickers. And they're all counterfeit. They didn't originate in the U.S., but they looked like the U.S. product. And most importantly, they were just as potent. They did have the right stuff in them, which is called methaqualone. It was methaqualone powder. I quickly discovered Colombia doesn't produce methaqualone, so they had to be getting it from somewhere. That seemed to be the critical thing to find out.

It was about that time that I was selected to take over what we now call the Office of Diversion Control. One of my first responsibilities was to attack that problem, and my first effort was to go to Colombia in search of the evidence that would show the origin of that powder. We were able to do that. It took some time, but eventually we were able to get the seizures on the docks in Barranquilla, Colombia, together with the paperwork that pointed to the original source of the material. In this particular case, the first source we identified was Hungary.

Armed with that knowledge, I prepared a good evidence package -- photographs, copies of paperwork, everything we needed, a complete analysis of the problem -- and made appointments with the key people in Hungary through the ambassador, went to Hungary and presented this material. [It] took three days of waiting and wondering, but at the end, after studying the material and after seeing how explosive it could be, they announced that they were sending no more methaqualone out of the country -- they were even going to pull back a shipment we didn't even know about that had gone already to Switzerland -- and that as far as they were concerned, there would be no further problem from Hungary with regard to that drug. This was an amazing achievement to me. It exceeded expectations. ...

It gave me the key to the kind of procedure and the method we needed to proceed [with] as we identified the various different sources. And we did. One by one we found the sources, in Germany and Austria going through the port of Hamburg, and even ultimately in China.

And each time, it took time. But each time, we were able to deal with these sources, and simply by going around the world, just cutting off the faucets until, in fact, there was no more flow. The Colombians could not get their drug powder; they could not counterfeit the tablets. And that line of $2 billion or more of illicit drug traffic was finished. ...

A lot of people have forgotten about the Quaalude problem, but it was a very big problem. One time it was as big as the heroin or cocaine problem, and people wonder why it's gone away. Well, it's gone away because we beat them. We beat them because we found a method. And I think that's a very encouraging lesson and a good example of what can be done if you can pursue a persistent, effective policy with a good strategy. Over a period of time, we beat them. It's gone. They never recouped.

Read more about the DEA's defeat of Quaaludes.

[How did that success with Quaaludes affect your methods moving forward?]

One of the consequences of our victory over methaqualone is that I was soon approached by some of our agents in South America, and they said to me, "Gene, you've got to do the same thing with the chemicals for cocaine." I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "Well, all the chemicals for processing cocaine now are coming in from the U.S., and our friends down there are always complaining to us, 'You expect us to stop the cocaine traffic? Why can't you do something about the chemicals?'"

Well, it was the first time I had heard that, but I immediately realized that there was a similarity here. We were talking about foreign sources; the strategy should fit. Well, as time went on and we studied the problem, I came to the conclusion that that was the right approach, but here we didn't really have the law.

So after a lot of agonizing, really, because it was new, I called my staff in one day. I don't think they were too eager, but I said, "Gentlemen, today we're going to write a new law." And I outlined the concept of chemical control for drug law enforcement. My staff went to work. We produced a beautiful product.

It was the first; there were a lot of flaws. But we produced it and sent it up, and the reception was magnificent. Cleared the White House in a month or two. Went to the Hill, all kinds of support. I couldn't believe it. So that's the way we got started. Now, I immediately realized that, look, there's more to this than cocaine traffic, because we have some serious clandestine lab problems in the U.S. at that time, and methamphetamine was probably the principal one even then. So I thought, well, this is an opportunity; we've got to address the whole area. ...

We included all of the principal chemicals [in that first draft, including] the precursors required for the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine. And this was even more strategic than in trying to deal with cocaine, because ... with methamphetamine, we could turn this chemical control law into a rifle approach to the problem, not just a shotgun approach, because there were relatively few chemicals and they had relatively few legitimate uses, so this concept was especially well suited to attack a problem such as methamphetamine. ...

So as you're starting to pursue applying this law to control methamphetamine, what kind of resistance did you get from the pharmaceutical industry?

We had extremely good reception on the part of this proposal, both from the president, the Justice Department and the Congress. However, it did soon surface that legitimate industry had concerns, and I suppose most especially the proprietary associations that represent the manufacturers of the pharmaceutical preparations with ephedrine and psuedoephedrine in them.

So although this was progressing quite smoothly through Congress, in almost a record of speed, to our great surprise, it did hit a snag. There was a delay, and the snag was due to the lobbying efforts of those interests. They were concerned that we were biting off a lot of authority that would be a problem for them in terms of their legitimate interests. ...

What kind of influence does the pharmaceutical industry have in Washington?

In problems of regulation and drug control, it has to be realized that the pharmaceutical industry, and to some extent the chemical industry, has a lot of interest, and they have considerable influence. There's no question of that. I think in many ways, this is entirely legitimate.

There are problems here of living in two different communities. They live in the business community, where the name of the game is to make money and sell product, supposedly for legitimate purposes, whereas we in law enforcement, we see the other side of it. We see the harm that these same drugs and chemicals can do when they slip from the legitimate to the illicit.

They don't see that side. They don't think of that side, because that's not the business they're in. So they are always a little bit concerned about what DEA does in a situation like this, and sometimes more than a little bit. They know who to talk to and who to go to in Washington. They're highly skilled, very well organized and very well funded, and they can be quite formidable.

So this becomes a very tricky dance and negotiation to get what we need, to get what we deserve, to protect the public, but at the same [time] try not to interfere or overly inconvenience the legitimate aspects. Well, I describe it very easily, but you can be assured that in the real world, in tackling particular problems, it's not ever very easy or very clear to people involved.

What was the problem you ran into with the proposed control on ephedrine?

The first problem we ran into of this kind, in dealing with chemical control, really was ephedrine, because it did have some very wide uses in over-the-counter pharmaceuticals principally, and some prescription drugs, too. They were very much concerned. They didn't understand what we were trying to do or why, and I think they were rather distrustful of that. ...

Describe what happened in the meeting in the Indian Treaty Room [negotiating this first piece of legislation].

The first serious meeting that we had with those proprietary associations interested in legitimate activity with ephedrine took place in the Old Executive Office Building. It was in the Indian Treaty Room, a very beautiful room. When you have a meeting there, you feel like you're really having a meeting.

I was called over there rather unexpected[ly] and not really knowing quite what the scenario would be, and discovered it was a room full of people, including many of those lobbyists for that particular industry. But I wasn't concerned. I was loaded for bear, you may say. I had the evidence; I had the presentation; I knew what I was doing. And that's the kind of presentation I made.

Nothing significant that I could see happened in that meeting, so I don't know what conclusions may have come from it. The fact of the matter is that there were two or three occasions in which different components of the chemical industry attempted to exercise some political clout, and insofar as I was able to tell, in the White House, they did not succeed.

[What were the issues in the back-and-forth?]

…We didn't really want to interfere with legitimate uses; we just wanted to stop that material from getting into the illicit traffic. I was willing to try to accommodate those interests. Once the legislation was going, we had a series of meetings with different components of the industry.

Basically, it's split into two groups: There was the group that manufactured the big bulk chemicals, ... and then there was the group that manufactured the various pills, ephedrine tablets and so forth -- that's where most of the difficulty and opposition came from, not the other group.

We'd have meetings that were organized on the Hill to negotiate these provisions, to try to achieve that correct balance. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but it's clear that they were suspicious of what we were doing. They didn't really know a thing about the methamphetamine problem or a thing about the illicit drug traffic. They just didn't relate to that. Their concern was their business and their profits and so forth. So this always makes a difficult negotiation.

In the end, we got most of what we wanted. Some exceptions were made, and one of the principal exceptions was that we decided that at this point it was not necessary to insist upon controlling the pharmaceuticals that happened to involve these chemicals. We really didn't know that that would become a problem. We realized even then, because I have a staff of scientists advising me, that it could be, but we weren't sure.

So it felt like it wasn't good balance to jeopardize the whole law over this issue. We felt like, well, if it does become a problem, then we'll have to do something then. So that was part of the deal. I think at the time, it was a reasonable approach on my part. They were very insistent, of course. But I really made a mistake, because it did become a problem.

[You experienced a big success in 1989 when the law went into effect?]

When the law came into force, this was an exciting thing, to implement a whole new law like this. It was a pretty sizable law … we had a tool for the first time to do something that had never been done.

…I remember being at one of the meetings with industry, and a representative of one of the well-known chemical houses, he stood up and he said: "Mr. Haislip, you don't understand. That's not the way we do business. We get orders over the telephone. We don't know who's at the other end." I said: "No, you don't understand. That's not the way you're doing business anymore." And so it was that kind of a sea change in the situation.

It wasn't long before we saw the effect, because at that moment, the problem was a diversion of bulk ephedrine almost exclusively from domestic sources. Pretty soon what we saw is the traffickers on the West Coast were reporting they couldn't get their ephedrine. They were trying to burglarize suppliers and did in some cases. Ephedrine was selling on the street per kilo for almost what cocaine was selling. They were desperate.

But more importantly, then we looked at the statistics on deaths and injuries, because my view has always been if you're having success, you're going to see a fall in deaths and injuries. If you don't, you are not succeeding. And we saw that line dropping to the floor so beautifully. The two matched perfectly.

And everyone in California and the police and the health authorities, they said: "What's going on? It's disappearing. The statistics are dropping. We're not seeing the people. What the hell is going on here?" So I knew I had a winner, or I thought I had a winner. At least I did for a period of time. ...

[How did the Mexican drug runners respond to the change?]

Well, for 1990 into '92, things were really looking pretty good. I was boasting of a big victory, because it was. But something funny was already beginning to happen that was really bothersome. Customs was beginning to seize ephedrine powder coming across the Mexican border into California for the manufacture of methamphetamine. At first it was a few kilos, and then it was 700 kilos, and then there was 1,000 kilos. Well, now, this is too much for Mexico to even have, so I knew there was some new problem.

So the effort began to try to find out where the Mexicans were getting all this ephedrine. Well, at that time, we thought the main suppliers were China and Germany.

I had some good law enforcement connections with the Germans … and so that was the first place I turned. We sent them correspondence describing the problem and had it delivered by our office and asked them to look into the matter, and they did, and I got back reports. The reports were all negative. So at that period of time I didn't really know where to turn. We were punching in the dark.

… [N]aturally, one of the first things we did was to try to sensitize U.S. Customs to this problem, and we had to start out doing that when the law was enacted, because we had some important import/export controls. ... We not only decided that we'd control imports in the United States, [but] also anything in transit. ... So any shipment in transit that came into the U.S. was regarded as an import for which you had to have all the permits and everything. It's the same way we handle drugs.

Well, March of 1994, a plane landed. It was a Lufthansa flight from Switzerland. The plane landed in Dallas, Texas. Customs officer went aboard just to see what the cargo was and discovered that there were 120 of these cardboard chemical-type containers in there. Turns out that together, they contained 3.4 metric tons of material. And then he noticed that the company of origin -- you could almost read it through the top cover, but it had been painted over.

He looked at the bill of lading, and it seemed to be harmless pharmaceuticals or fertilizer. But he decided to pop the lid and see what was inside. And he found this fine powder in there, and pulled a sample and he called the DEA, and next thing you know, it was 3.4 metric tons of ephedrine destined for Mexico City that had landed in Dallas en route. [They] had broken our law because it was an import without permits.

Now we had something, once again, to start an international investigation, and we did, and we got a lot of help from the Swiss in spite of the fact they had no law. Pretty soon we had identified suppliers in India, in the Czech Republic and other places that had been involved in shipments of this kind.

The brokers didn't really want to deal with us. They didn't want to supply paper; they didn't want to provide information. But of course we have ways of getting information, and we have ways of getting them to be cooperative, and so in the end we actually documented a number of shipments during that year or during the previous year. ...

As a result of our investigation in Switzerland, and the help we got in doing that, we found that 70 metric tons of ephedrine -- an enormous quantity -- had been shipped to Mexico by several brokers and from two or three sources. India was one of the principal sources. The Czech Republic was another. There were several.

[But the finding in Dallas is considered a lucky break. Why weren't there more successes after the law went into effect?]

The problem was the resources. The truth of the matter is that DEA is a relatively small agency trying to grapple with a real enormous problem.

Most of the resources at that time were being eaten up with a cocaine problem, so the agency doesn't really have extra resources to throw around, and certainly not for something brand new and relatively unexpected like this, even though they had encouraged it.

I really had to try to reprogram resources, and pretty soon I wasn't able to do that for legal reasons. So the resource issue, the manpower and funding just wasn't there, and it proved to be very difficult to obtain. ... The fact is, the DEA is generally always pretty thinly stretched, and so it's always difficult to say, "I want more," because it's robbing Peter to pay Paul.

When you find that this stuff is coming from India, how did you work with suppliers to get more control and have an effect on the meth supply?

... After discovering this vast quantity going into Mexico, feeding the methamphetamine traffic, we were able to employ the same tools that we used, essentially, with methaqualone [the key ingredient in Quaaludes]; that is to say, active diplomacy based on real intelligence, seeking cooperations, a sort of a carrot-and-stick approach.

That meant branching out, going to India, the Czech Republic, all of these source countries, soliciting cooperation, presenting the evidence. And it was exactly the same kind of program, and it produced exactly the same kind of results. Most of these countries were willing and even eager to cooperate in cutting off this flow of chemicals, and indeed, it wasn't very long before we saw concrete results. ...

What did that success mean in human terms?

We begin to see large seizures in Mexico City; we begin to see large shipments being stopped at the source; and consequently, we begin once again to see that same beautiful fall of the deaths and injuries that tells you you are having success.

We knew that we were having an effect. It's exactly the situation that we had with regard to Quaaludes and methaqualone. We could take an action, we could see an effect, and so I'm convinced we had the right methodology.

[But what about the loophole in the legislation? How did the drug runners exploit that?]

... Regrettably, they began to obtain large supplies of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine tablets to use as their principal source of chemical precursors. Well, this was a big problem, because at that juncture, we really did not have adequate legal control over that material.

This had been the problem with negotiating the original chemical bill, and so we didn't have the same kinds of controls to deal with the problem. Therefore, at that particular moment in time, we couldn't really accomplish the same thing. Well, of course, this led to a sort of chase in which we would introduce new amendments to the law to get greater authority, to try to deal with the problems.

We would also encounter the same kind of lobbying and resistance that we had in the initial phases [of negotiating the 1989 law], and so once again, [for the 1995 law regulating ephedrine pills] there was this problem of negotiation and this problem of the lobbying or the political component. ...

Eventually we did get increased authority up to a certain level, and we began to have successes even in this area, once again, at first [with] domestic suppliers. We found that there were so-called firms that had been set up; they were primarily supplying tablets only to the traffickers. In fact, I recall one deal. It was a case that -- and it was in Florida -- where the traffickers actually asked this particular business, "Would you stop putting the binder in these tablets, because it makes it more difficult for us to use them?" So they were producing ephedrine tablets without binder so that it would be easier for the traffickers to convert and use; all they had to do was crush them. So this is the kind of thing that was going on. We moved to counter that.

We began to make some good investigations and good prosecutions. So what do you think happened next? Of course they turned overseas, ... and so we began to branch out into those areas. I think that we were having some measurable successes. I guess the big problem finally came in 1996, really, where by that time we had not only succeeded by essentially controlling and largely eliminating ephedrine powder, pseudoephedrine powder, ephedrine tablets.

Now, really, the major source of supply had become pseudoephedrine tablets. Very common -- it's [in] over-the-counter medicines. ...

Talk about the negotiations you went through in trying to amend the law [in 1996].

... What we needed was a regulation [on wholesale pseudoephedrine pill sellers], and so I proposed a regulation. Well, when I did that, they sort of hit the ceiling.

Certainly they know how to do their business, and they lodged some very effective complaints against those regulations, but nevertheless I remember I got them cleared by the White House. They went into force. … It was enacted, but it's the first time in my entire career I ever saw a DEA regulation eliminated by an act of Congress, because essentially the decision was made to give everyone a year to adjust to the new controls. Well, look, that gave legitimate people a year to adjust, but on the other hand, unfortunately, it gave the traffickers a year to adjust, and that's just what they did. ...

I don't want to make this personal, but I felt a little bitterness. We had a regulation. It would have helped us. It was delay. It was a setback of a sort. Finally, we did get it. It did come home after a year. I wasn't there to see it, but it happened.

[Did the new regulation help once it became effective?]

I think that we really finally did make this law march. We had a dramatic effect. The whole problem began to chase the traffickers as they tried to find adjustments, and I've described some of those one by one. Well, then there have been others to occur later that were also important, and I think one of the first was to use Canada. ...

We began to see substantial quantities of tablets being smuggled across the Canadian border. It was clear that a significant portion of the methamphetamine traffickers and manufacturers had turned to that source of supply. Canada was a weak link. Canada had a weak law. Canada really wasn't giving attention to this, and it was well known.

The next thing that happened is that the Mexicans once again were able to recoup their loss of supplies by turning to other sources. ... They no longer could obtain their powder from the sources that we had identified and visited, [like India]. I think they were essentially out of it for a while. They were essentially primarily using pills like everybody else was. But I think they found their way back into the loop probably by turning to some sources that they had not previously used, principally in Asia. And so, as always, they are trying to re-establish their lines of supply.

And you have to keep chasing them, and that's the only way to be effective. That why I think the international part of this whole effort is absolutely critical. It doesn't matter how good a job you do in controlling domestic supplies. They will simply turn and get it from other sources in the world where there are inadequate controls or where nobody's looking or where nobody cares, or where they only care about the dollar to be made. There's plenty of sources like that.

For this, the U.S. has got to take a very forward, progressive leadership role. I organized literally dozens of conferences all over the world for the purpose of organizing law enforcement efforts of this kind, to deal with shipments and try to stop them from coming or identify those that had gotten out of hand.

We established about 30 key countries working very closely together with the United Nations apparatus in Vienna, which, by the way, is pretty good.

They're pretty professional people and pretty dedicated in this area. There's no substitute for that kind of work. DEA has got to be a critical component of it, because diplomacy at the State Department level is only effective if it's supported by diplomacy at the so-called technical level, the enforcement experts who have the drive, the sources of intelligence and the knowledge and the mission to stop this traffic.

You've got to have a sort of chemical control czar, which I pretty much was, who is out there, him or her, plus staff, visiting all these countries, making friends, establishing connections, because people trust when they meet eye to eye, face to face, not once, but frequently. Then people trust. Then information flows. Then cases are made. Then things happen. Then that beautiful magic line, the fall in deaths and injuries, one day you see that happen. That's what you're looking for ultimately. That's got to be done. ...


blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

home + introduction + site map + watch online + meth in the body + faqs + interviews
map + update: u.s. strategy + update: mexican meth + producer's chat + join the discussion
timeline + readings + links + the oregonian series + teacher's guide
dvd & transcript + press reaction + credits + privacy policy + FRONTLINE home + WGBH + PBS

posted feb. 14, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright ©2006 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation