Spurred by new laws restricting the sales of cold remedies such as Sudafed, which contain pseudoephedrine, a necessary component of popular meth-cooking recipes, police and prosecutors across the country have been arresting convenience store clerks -- sometimes on charges that carry substantial prison sentences. In one Georgia case, authorities made mass arrests of immigrant store clerks and owners, but it's starting to look less like a criminal conspiracy and more like culturally naive foreign-born merchants simply trying to sell their merchandise.
It's all a big waste of money, says the Drug Policy Alliance, which issued a press release this week calling for money spent prosecuting and imprisoning store clerks to instead be spent on treatment for meth addicts. "Convenience store clerks have become the latest casualities in the war on drugs," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Selling lighter fluid, cold medicine and other legal items shouldn't get someone decades in prison."
But that's what 49 rural northwest Georgia store clerks and owners, 44 of them Indian immigrants, are facing in the wake of a federal sting called Operation Meth Merchant, the brainchild of US Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia David Nahmias. Nahmias sent various undercover informants into the stores seeking items that could be used to make meth, then indicted the clerks on charges that could net them 20 years in prison. Nahmias told the New York Times he was convinced the clerks were guilty.
But as preliminary motions in the cases are filed, defense attorneys have been able to argue convincingly that the clerks and store owners often didn't understand that the informants were trying to tell them they wanted products for cooking meth. "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," he told the Times.
"This is the first time I heard this -- I don't know how to pronounce -- this meta-meta something," said Hajira Ahmed. Her husband is one of the 49 arrested. He sits in jail awaiting trial on charges he sold cold medicine and antifreeze.
The Indian store clerks simply didn't understand the drug slang used by the undercover informants, defense lawyers said. When one told clerks he needed cold medicine, matches, and camping fuel to "finish a cook," the clerks thought that he was talking about a barbecue. Defense attorneys were able to point out that government documents defined the phrase in a footnote, suggesting that if it had to be explained to attorneys familiar with enforcing methamphetamine laws, it was hard to expect socially isolated store clerks to know its significance.
"This is not even slang language like 'gonna,' 'wanna,'" said Malvika Patel, who spent three days in jail after being arrested in a case of mistaken identity. "'Cook' is very clear; it means food." And in this context, she told the Times, 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."
The experience has soured some of the immigrants on their newly adopted homeland. Patel's husband, Chris, who Americanized his name on arrival, told the Times his wife's arrest made him think of selling his three stores and going back to India. "We are from so much cleaner society where we are from in India," he said. "We didn't even know what drugs were."
It's not only Indians in Georgia, but also Middle Easterners in Arizona, more than 30 of whom were arrested in a similar sting recently. And just plain white folks in Oklahoma. And with some 40 states having enacted or about to enact legislation restricting the sale of cold medicines as part of the war on meth, there will be more to come.
There has to be a better way, says the Drug Policy Alliance. "Putting store clerks in jail and breaking up families does nothing to deal with the problems associated with methamphetamine abuse," said Piper. "The hundreds of thousands of dollars it will cost to imprison these clerks would be better spent on drug treatment."