James McDonough is the state of Florida's "Drug Czar." The former US Army Colonel came to Florida straight from the big house, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) where he served as assistant to his old military buddy, Director Barry McCaffrey. After years spent at the side of the retired four-star general, McDonough may or may not have learned much about drugs, but he is apparently well-schooled in at least one aspect of warfare: disinformation.
In response to the proliferation of raves -- large techno dance parties -- and the drug use associated with them -- authorities across Florida began an enforcement drive last summer dubbed "Operation Heat Rave." The operation's central focus was a string of raids on dance parties across the state. Over the winter, state officials followed that up with a study attempting to quantify deaths caused by "club drugs."
Earlier this year, McDonough took the stage at a state-wide drug summit to announce that after a "very thorough autopsy-by-autopsy review," his office had discovered that club drugs, including MDMA (ecstacy), rohypnol and GHB, had been responsible for 254 deaths statewide.
If this number was meant to shock Floridians, it had the desired effect. But an independent investigation of that number by the Orlando Sentinel found the figure to be a gross exaggeration. In fact, many of the deaths that were counted in the figure were so clearly unrelated to dance parties or recreational drug use as to raise serious questions about the intent of the "study."
According to the Sentinel, which reviewed the 60 Central Florida deaths that McDonough's office attributed to club drugs, more than half should have been discarded at first glance.
Included in that number was a 15 year-old who died of an undiagnosed heart ailment while playing basketball, a 4 year-old boy who died in the hospital after a spinal tap, a 6 month-old Miami boy who died of sudden infant death syndrome, an 82 year-old woman who died 8 days after being hit by a car, a 58 year-old man who died upon leaving the hospital after a heart operation, a 52 year-old nursing home patient who fell and hit his head, and a 74 year-old cancer patient who died in the hospital from an accidental overdose of morphine.
The report also listed 7 amphetamine-related deaths of middle-aged men, as well as 10 deaths from heroin overdose. Neither amphetamine nor heroin is considered a "club drug," and neither, certainly, qualifies as a "new" threat.
Emanuel Sferios is the Director of DanceSafe, a San Francisco based organization that provides harm reduction information to members of the rave scene.
"We were skeptical as soon as we heard that number (254)," Sferios told The Week Online. "We've been working with contacts in Florida for the past couple of months to try to get copies of the autopsy reports, but have been getting the run around. It is interesting but not surprising that the Sentinel was also skeptical. 254 deaths would have been way, way out of line with the statistics for club drug deaths anywhere in the world."
Florida Governor Jeb Bush created the state's Office of Drug Control in 1999. In so doing, Bush cited the need for an office that was "research-based, measurable and accountable for performance." McDonough, who had served as director of strategy under McCaffrey at ONDCP, was brought in as director.
On December 12, ten days after the National Institute on Drugs and Addiction released a report on the rising popularity of "designer drugs," McDonough contacted all 22 of the state's medical examiners. McDonough asked them to send the autopsy reports for every death since 1997 that tested positive for any of 20 different drugs.
The state's medical examiners, as it turns out, had concerns about the study even before McDonough announced his findings.
Larry Bedore, director of operations for the state Medical Examiners Commission, told the Sentinel that the commission did all that it could to make the study worthwhile.
"I spent weeks trying to educate them on what they were really looking for," he told the Sentinel. "I talked until I was blue in the face." The Sentinel also reports that "One hundred and fifty pages of memos, draft policies and other correspondence" shows an effort by the examiners' commission to limit the number of drugs to be tracked.
Steve Lauer, the Office of Drug Control's chief of staff, told the Sentinel that he was unaware that certain drugs on the list were used at hospitals. "I'm not a doctor, I'm a layman," he told them. As to the inclusion of large numbers of very old and very young people on a list of supposed club drug deaths, Lauer claimed that he forgot the advice given to him by the examiners' office not to include these.
Emanuel Sferios of DanceSafe takes a less charitable view of a process through which numbers were generated for the purpose of rationalizing policy.
"The logic of the drug war necessitates lies in a fundamental way. When you deal with a health and safety issue under the rubric of war, including military leadership and military strategies, propaganda has to be expected. There are problems with the raves, and with young people ingesting unlabeled substances with inadequate information about even those substances that they know they are ingesting. The solution to many of the legitimate safety concerns here is more information, truthful information. As we know, and as we see here, truth is usually the first casualty in any war."
(Read the Sentinel report online here. Letters to the Editor can be submitted to: The Orlando Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801-1349, by fax to (407) 420-5286 or by e-mail to [email protected] and should be 175 words or less and include your name, address and day and evening telephone numbers.)