Monday, August 08, 2005
Don't Touch The Tinfoil, Kids: It's For Hats Only 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Begging to Differ reports that the War on Drugs has reached "a whole new level of stupidity" - Georgia authorities announced the results of a sting arresting store clerks for selling household items that can be used to "cook" methamphetamine, like aluminum foil, coffee filters and cat litter if the seller suspects they may be used illegally. Apparently, part of the problem described here (besides the absurd breadth of what now constitutes 'drug paraphernalia') are language subtleties - but when police start monitoring sales of cat litter and coffee filters, you know we're going a tad too far. From the New York Times:
ROME, Ga., July 29 - 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.

The case of Operation Meth Merchant illustrates another difficulty for law enforcement officials fighting methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that can be made with ordinary grocery store items.

Many states, including Georgia, have recently enacted laws restricting the sale of common cold medicines like Sudafed, and nationwide, the police are telling merchants to be suspicious of sales of charcoal, coffee filters, aluminum foil and Kitty Litter. Walgreens agreed this week to pay $1.3 million for failing to monitor the sale of over-the-counter cold medicine that was bought by a methamphetamine dealer in Texas.
In some cases, the language barriers seem obvious - one videotape shows cold medicine stacked next to a sign saying, "Cheek your change befor you leave a counter." Investigators footnoted court papers to explain that the clue the informants dropped most often - that they were doing "a cook" - is a "common term" meth makers use. Lawyers argue that if the courts could not be expected to understand what this meant, neither could immigrants with a limited grasp of English.

"This is not even slang language like 'gonna,' 'wanna,' " said Malvika Patel, who spent three days in jail before being cleared this month. " 'Cook' is very clear; it means food." And in this context, she said, some of the items the government wants stores to monitor would not set off any alarms. "When I do barbecue, I have four families. I never have enough aluminum foil."
Maybe some of the clerks are being disingenuous, but c'mon...summertime in Georgia is synonymous with "barbecue." I'd like to see how comfortable the neighborhood remains for stores who refuse to sell foil and coffee filters to anyone who looka' like a cooka'. What's next? Coffee filters by prescription only?

Anyhow, having police informants "mention" (using ambiguous slang:
"Gotcha! Simon says, 'cook'!") that the products being purchased are intended for drug preparation seems like the stupidest possible form of entrapment. By the way, those of you that really are meth cooks...if you feel a burning [ha, ha] need to tell convenience store clerks what the cold medicine and camping fuel you're buying are really for...you deserve whatever you get.

News like this makes me long for the days of "Why, sure, Officer...I'm buying this 'decorative water pipe' for tobacco smoking purposes only."