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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 33 - The Drugging of America

Power unused is power abused  

Egil Krogh, 1972


While attempting to suppress narcotics, the federal government had inadvertently become a major supplier of narcotics. When the Nixon administration first assumed office, In 1969, It will be recalled, it was discovered that agents in the New York office of what was then the federal Bureau of Narcotics had become the leading dealers in heroin in the United States and were protecting the operations of illicit dealers (who in turn were providing them with their sacrificial "arrests"). Most of these agent-dealers were subsequently indicted, fired, or relocated. 

For very different reasons. the Nixon administration also went into the business of distributing an addictive narcotic in the inner cities: methadone. In the belief that methadone was the only practical means they had of lowering crime statistics and overcoming the opposition from both bureaucrats and cabinet officers before the 1972 election, the White House strategists had succeeded in 1973 in funding some 450 methadone programs which distributed more than 7.5 million dosages of this synthetic narcotic annually in the United States. These federally financed treatment centers doled out daily dosages of the drug to over 73,000 persons (and almost any over twenty-one who desired to receive the drug could by one means or another enroll in the program). Although a radical change in government policy from narcotics suppression to narcotics distribution had almost been achieved by election time, the White House strategists were unable to persuade President Nixon publicly to identify himself with methadone treatment. Jeffrey Donfeld prepared, he recalled, "dozens of scenarios in which the president would visit a treatment center." But all were peremptorily rejected. In New York, in June, 1972, while the president and his party were flying in a helicopter from the Downtown Heliport to Kennedy Airport, Egil Krogh broached the subject to the president. Pointing downward toward the borough of Queens, the president replied, "The people down there couldn't care less about treatment or education. All they want to do is lock the folks up involved with drugs ... just lock them up." Unlike his young and inexperienced staff assistants, who quested for magic-bullet solutions, Nixon realized, probably instinctively, that pouring out a synthetic drug in the ghettos could produce damaging side effects (with which he did not want to be personally identified before the election). 

One such side effect was that the treatment centers rapidly became centers for the illicit distribution of drugs in their communities. Despite -the elaborate "blockade" theories which the proponents of methadone advanced, in which methadone was supposed to prevent the use of heroin, patients enrolled in these programs persisted in using illegal drugs. For example, in an extensive month-long examination of a sample of patients drawn from a maintenance program in Philadelphia, Carl D. Chambers and W. J. Russell Taylor found through urinalysis that there was an extensive pattern of cheating. In examining those who had remained in the program for more than six months, Chambers and Taylor found that 77 percent of these long-term patients were still using heroin - 30 percent were using barbiturates; and 25 percent, amphetamines. Nine months later the same sample was again tested for another month-long period. This time 92.3 percent of the methadone patients were found to be using heroin; 43.6 percent, barbiturates: 69.2 percent, amphetamines; and 43.6 percent, cocaine. Moreover, nearly two thirds of the patients tested had evidence of drug abuse half the time they were tested. Chambers and Taylor were thus forced to conclude pessimistically: 

Even after a year on relatively high dosages of methadone; neither a narcotic blockade had occurred nor had drug craving significantly diminished. These findings must also be viewed within the context that neither the patients themselves nor the program within which they were being treated are significantly different from most other methadone programs or patients. 

Since a large number of methadone patients continued in their pursuit of illicit drugs (heroin, barbiturates, amphetamines, or cocaine), they not uncommonly sold or traded the weekend methadone dosages for money (or traded them directly for the illicit drugs they preferred). As the BNDD had originally feared, methadone thus leaked into the underworld of drugs: by 1973 it had become the major drug of abuse in the United States. In March, 1974, the New York medical examiner reported that methadone poisoning surpassed heroin as a cause of death from narcotics, and national statistics drawn from emergency rooms and medical examiners around the country confirmed this trend. An April, 1974. report from the statistical and data services division of the newly created Drug Enforcement Agency, entitled "Methadone: A Review of Current Information," stated, "Within the nine months reporting period [in 1973] . . . methadone deaths showed the most rapid rate of increase [of any drug]." It also found that there was "a five to one predominance of methadone to heroin deaths in the last six months," suggesting that methadone is partially replacing heroin as a drug of abuse." The notion that the methadone addict would be less prone to commit crimes than the heroin addict he replaced was also debunked by this report, which found: 

Methadone addicts are not necessarily rehabilitated heroin addicts. A limited study of heroin and methadone addicts indicates that methadone addicts are equally prone to arrest, are more prone to commit property crimes or crimes of assault, and they are equally unemployed. 

Verifying the high leakage from the federally financed methadone programs, the report also discovered that "almost half of those arrested obtained methadone outside of treatment programs" and that "methadone is readily available and heavily abused, contributing substantially to the overall drug problem." In examining police arrest statistics in New York City, the unpublished report further found that methadone does not necessarily ... lower the crime rate," and even where there is an extensive methadone program, there were more methadone addicts arrested for various crimes than heroin addicts." Although this report was never made public, its implications were not lost on the White House, which began rapidly to disassociate itself from the funding of these treatment programs.*

* Jeffrey Donfeld also found in examining some of the treatment programs in Washington. D.C., that many of the statistical results were extremely dubious, if not entirely fraudulent. For example, in examining one methadone-treatment center in Washington which claimed to have enrolled thousands of addicts but refused to provide the names to the Government on the grounds that it would violate its "black militant philosophy," Donfeld found that "the necessary verification and reconciliation of receipts and disbursements could not be accomplished based on the information supplied by the center. The accounting procedures made it impossible to check the application of funds." Of $214,310 in funds made available to this center, $81,579 could not be accounted for in any way; only $55,517 of the money paid to the center was deposited in a checking account , of which $11,000 was used for petty cash (and checks drawn from the account were payable to either the local liquor store or to the mother of the individual who headed the program). Some attempt was made to examine the patients being serviced by this center. The three hundred patients claimed in January dropped to fifty two patients in September (most of whom were also unavailable for any sort of verification).

As the methadone problem became more pronounced in urban centers-or at least received more unfavorable publicity-the White House quietly divorced itself from the once-vaunted Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention. This office was moved into the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where it was in turn merged into the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), located in Rockville, Maryland. Dr. Jerome Jaffe, who had been promised direct access to the president, was cut off from the White House staff after the election: in early 1973 his pass to the White House cafeteria was revoked. Fully realizing that the White House strategists had been interested only in election-year public relations rather than the medical rehabilitation of drug addicts, Jaffe resigned in June, 1973.

In the hopes of increasing its election margin the Nixon administration had willy-nilly brought about 'he de facto legalization of a narcotic. As Nixon had realized in his dealing with the Veterans Administration earlier, once a problem is turned over to the medical bureaucracy, it becomes difficult and perhaps impossible, in political terms, to phase it out. Thus, even though the heroin "epidemic" by all measures abated and the number of addicts turning up for treatment (or for free methadone) drastically declined after 1973, the methadone programs continued to expand, and the amount of illicit methadone available to addicts increased in direct proportion to the number of treatment programs. The federal government, therefore, again assumed its unwitting role as a major supplier of illicit drugs.



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