Our Exploding Drug Laws


Earlier this year, a methamphetamine lab exploded in a backyard shed in Iowa Park, a town just west of Wichita Falls. Instances of this type of explosion are on the rise in areas like North Texas, where meth labs have become increasingly common: Amateur speed cooks handling flammable substances will light a cigarette, or a thermostat-controlled heater will turn on, and suddenly the place is aflame. In the case of the Iowa Park explosion, the 20-year-old man who’d apparently been manufacturing meth inside the shed was badly hurt, with second and third degree burns over 50 percent of his body. Two hours passed before he was taken to the hospital, while his father attempted to clean up the lab. Asked by the Iowa Park police why he hadn’t called an ambulance right away, the father replied that “he didn’t want his boy in trouble.”

The father’s actions outraged many in the community. “What kind of father in his right mind would allow his son to suffer for that long with critical burns without seeking immediate medical attention?” asked one law enforcement official was quoted in the Iowa Park Leader. But was hardly the first time that medical attention has been delayed or denied because someone is afraid of getting caught with drugs. As Judge James P. Gray, author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, noted during a recent speech in Austin, Len Bias, the young basketball star who died in 1986 of a cocaine overdose, was on his third convulsion before his friends took him to the hospital. More recently, many of the Plano teenagers who died of heroin overdoses a few years ago might have lived had their friends sought medical attention for them earlier. Rather than chastise the individuals involved, perhaps it is time to question the climate of fear in which these incidents took place.

Gray, a Republican, is a California Superior Court judge and a former federal prosecutor; he has been an outspoken critic of U.S. drug policy for the past nine years. When it comes to drug laws, Americans should “realize we have options,” he said. “On one side, the most radical thing we could do is legalization…. At the other end of the spectrum is zero-tolerance. But we have viable options in between these two radical extremes.” Medical clinics that supply drugs to addicts have helped reduce crime in Switzerland. Decriminalization has worked in Holland. In this country, Gray said, we should “legitimize the discussion, and acknowledge that just because we have this discussion does not mean we condone drug use or abuse.”

There is growing sentiment around the country that this discussion is overdue, but that sentiment has not made inroads at the White House. In another throwback to his father’s administration, President Bush has chosen John P. Walters, an old-school drug warrior who was William J. Bennett’s chief deputy, to serve as drug czar.

While researching the story on North Texas meth labs that appears in this issue, I became all the more convinced that our drug policies must change. Methamphetamine addiction is a serious public health problem, but it has mostly been left to police and the courts to deal with it. The phenomenon is hardly unique to North Texas or to methamphetamine. In the war on drugs, helping drug addicts remains a secondary aim. Is this so different from the father who waits to take his son to the hospital until he has cleaned up the lab?