Chino and I

In the pale winter gloom of my junior one bedroom in Bay Ridge, the skinny 10-speed sits low on depressed tires. The metallic silver paint job is dull and scratched and the factory white primer peeks through like exposed bone. Bedraggled black handlebar tape hangs limply over pinched spokes, like a suicide dragged from a lake. We’ve been together for nearly five years. Her name is Chino.

Now, as she leans against the wall in my hallway—a hat covering her split seat—I gently lift her sagging chain with a finger. She needs a new cassette and a service but I just can’t part with the $70 plus parts, to fix her up this month.

People say she looks like just another Peugeot knock off, but to me, she looks like the bike I always wanted as a kid. That scorching August day in 2011 I wasn’t looking for a bike. I was just wandering around the East Village when I stopped into a no name, used bike store. I saw her snuggled between a sleek black Schwin and an angular, haughty red Raleigh, with a wicker basket—like models backstage at Fashion Week. She smelled of WD40, my nostalgia and excitement got the better of me; The skinny jeaned American Apparel chick behind the counter saw the desire in my eyes. I don’t think I even asked the price. Cha-ching!

I led her out to the baking sidewalk. But for a couple of stickers denoting a long expired Midwestern registration she looked as good as new. With shiny rims and tight new tires she was so elegant. Chino—the name painted down her center column—was still clearly visible in a slightly western, white on black serif font. I changed her tough leather Brooks seat for a spongy butt saver, pulled her handlebars up into the air like the kids at school did many years ago, switched her flat, brick-like pedals for ones with toe clips, and off I went. She was smooth and fast. Outside, the fuzzy faced hipsters looked up over upturned bikes and waved as I sailed off down East 4th street.

We rode everyday, from the sunny 69th street pier in Brooklyn under the sweeping curves of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and out to Coney Island. Full of life with fresh air in her tires, we took Manhattan by storm criss-crossing the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges. We looped infinite circles with the cool kids in Prospect Park. They swooshed by me, in primary Spandex and Oakleys on $10k bikes without a second look, but I didn’t care. I pedaled at decent rate in my grey Battle helmet, soccer shorts and a Thin Lizzy ‘T’.

But I didn’t know anything about her! Those stickers from the City of Ames on her centre pole told me she grew up in Iowa sometimes in the late 1970’s, and a transparent store logo peeling off the handlebars suggested her point of entry to the world: ‘World of Bikes – Ames, IA’. Buried in the archives of the local Ames newspaper The Tribune, I found a clue:

“The “World of Bikes,” co-owned and managed by Ted Millen and Lowell Strike, will open Thursday at 214 Main St. The store will feature a fall range of bicycles from those “designed for casual and family use to racing models, with servicing”. In addition, “World of Bikes will handle parts and accessories, carry used bikes, and provide rental service”. A French line of bicycles. Lhe Cazenave (sic), will be the store’s “main line,” Millen said. The long established French firm is now marketing its bikes in the Midwest; “World of Bikes” is the exclusive dealer for the line in Story County. Millen and Strike plan to carry lightweight bicycle camping equipment at a later date.” – Tribune, Ames, IA.

World of Bikes, is long gone. 214, Main Street is a sewing machine store now. It was one of several shops that sprang up responding to the bicycle boom in the 1970’s. Today World of Bikes would be a ‘pop-up shop’.

Ronn Ritz of Skunk River Cycles, has been selling bicycles in Ames for 40 years. From his headshot on the Skunk River Cycles web site, I can see he’s a youthful 65, with glasses and a neatly trimmed grey beard. He looks and sounds like a college professor, he reads The New Yorker and he’d like to get to Brooklyn sometime to try the restaurants. He remembers World of Bikes and it’s owner Ted Millen, though he never knew him well, If Ted’s still around, he’s not sure he’d recognize him.

“I started in ’72 at Michael’s Cyclery. At the time there was a hardware store selling Schwins, but he wasn’t doing a very good job of it so a couple of other stores opened up.”

“Everyone wanted to sell bikes. Hardware stores, motorcycle stores…Yamaha, Kawasaki, all had bikes in that era. They weren’t all good quality bikes. Bicycles were seen as a way to make quick money.”

It didn’t always work. A local company in Ames imported powder-painted frames, but after three months the paint peeled off in big sheets like sunburn. But some of those ‘cash in’ bikes became iconic. Bridgestone and their subsidiary Kabuki, for example, are still treasured today.

“They still show up from time to time,” says Ronn, “I still repair bikes that I sold in the 70’s.”

Back then the bicycle industry worked the way you might build a house. A distributor who wanted a unique brand would go to Japan or Taiwan, find a designer, a builder and then a parts distributor, and put it all together and paint their company’s name on the side.

I asked him about Chino, he remembered the brand. The Midwesterner gave it to me straight: “I wouldn’t be caught dead riding one.” He says. “They’re not that exciting to ride…lower grade steel with poorly made lugs.”

“In the 70’s in Ames [the registration stickers] were white or yellow, if a conscientious person was registered every year they’d have different colored stickers up and down the frame. Yellow ones, green ones. It’s like getting an old apartment and peeling off the wallpaper and finding an archaeological treasure!”

Iowa is flat, perfect for cycling. Ronn grew up on a farm in the North West of the Hawkeye state. There, the paved county roads stretch for miles and miles.

 “The first bike I had,” he says, “I couldn’t not ride it!…I cycled off down the highway in high tops and swim trunks and I thought I was in the world! I had this sudden freedom …and convenience. It’s a time machine! I didn’t have a car but I could get anywhere on a bike.”

“25 or 65 or 15,” he says, “I have a friend whose 85 and he rides quite a bit. You can be outside of time when you ride a bicycle.”

A love story about a bicycle - Neville Elder

Photo by Neville Elder

I tell him about the upgraded derailleur gears, the soft fluffy saddle, the handlebar tape that flutters across my wrists like a lover’s long black hair when I ride into the wind and a little defensively I say, Chino is my beater. He understands.

“We call them ‘rap’ bikes,” he says (a term borrowed from Hot Rod racing) “bicycles offer a continuing novelty, you can’t change their size but you can customize it to make it your own.”

We speculate about how Chino got to New York. Was she stolen?

“Rumors that cube vans or straight trucks would roll through town…bolt-cutters clip, clip, clip! Pick up 20 bikes. It’s hearsay but sounds feasible.”

“The University [Iowa State] cleans up at then end of the semester and take bikes that appear to be abandoned to a reclaim lot.”

So, possibly Chino was bought in a job lot by an enterprising hipster?

“I’m fairly sure it came from Taiwan,” he says. “It’s made it ¾ of the way around the world! In the 70’s when this bike was common, the Taiwanese [were a] breakthrough in the bike industry…better quality bikes coming out of Taiwan.”

Ronn thinks I should write a children’s story about her journey. He sketches it out for me.

“Your bike would have come to Long Beach [California] in a container, then in to a distributor’s warehouse somewhere, then to Ames.” Ronn continues, his imagination takes off, “Maybe some grad student went to Columbia University in New York for law school and took his bike with him? When he graduated he didn’t need it anymore became a corporate lawyer and bought himself an expensive bike, and moved to Connecticut.”

He pauses, “but, you’re the writer.” I’m sure he’s smiling.

I complain about how much it will cost to get Chino back on the road.

“We made have repaired [your bike] sometime over the years,” he says, “I don’t know about big city prices,” I smile at his tongue-in-cheek hometown colloquialism, “but I think we’d be little bit cheaper”.

I fantasized about subletting my apartment and moving to Ames to pedal the flat open county roads, head and shoulders above the corn. I would live above a bike shop and finish my novel. Ronn would teach me the noble art of the bike mechanic. Just me and Chino, riding against wind.

Originally published at Bikes and Humans

Being Near The End

When I arrived from England fifteen years ago, David was the first photographers’ agent I worked with. He sponsored my work visa and sold my pictures. We shared a deep love of photography. He possessed the uncanny ability to make sense of the contact sheets from a messy shoot. He’d stab his finger at a frame and say, ‘that one.’ Then, after considering my arguments in favor of another, he’d nod, smiling, before lobbying his choice again. He was always right. 

Our English sense of humor and those cultural references sculpted by the same generation formed an even stronger bond. We exchanged wry observations about the differences between life in the England and the US. We struggled with the dichotomy of loving America yet missing the UK.

One day, as I pitched him ideas for stories over lunch, he said: “I think you’ve been here too long when you go home and policemen’s hats look ridiculous!”

“And don’t you find the pavements too narrow?!” I said. 

It had been a while since that breaking of bread. I think we’d seen each other only twice since that lunch. I wanted to say ‘Hi’, ‘How’s tricks?’ but he hadn’t returned my phone calls. I quizzed April—a woman David and I had worked with at Corbis/Sygma, the photo agency—on his whereabouts. To her he was something of a mentor, but he’d dropped off her radar too, so we joined forces to track him down. Even for New York City standards, it was strange we hadn’t heard from him, but, hey, people get busy… 

It didn’t take long to find him, but she called with bad news. Cancer. Her voice shivered down the line with the diagnosis. We learned from his partner Micilín that on Saturday he couldn’t get out of bed and by Sunday he couldn’t talk. April wanted to visit him. I told her I’d meet her if she wanted company. 

When imagining the visit, I thought I’d pop in with bunch of grapes, make David laugh, rib him a little bit about not telling anyone about the cancer, and head back into the unfashionable end of Brooklyn, to feed my cat, Cato, and go for a run. 

April’s fragile figure near David’s home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn told me that plan was out the window. By the time I was close enough to touch her, the tears were already streaming down her face. That started me up too and we sobbed and clung to each other. Sunbathers squinted at us and commuters quick-stepped around us, heading to yoga or to binge on Netflix.

Micilín greeted us at the door of the cozy apartment she shared with David. In a calm friendly tone she explained that David’s ex-wife Junko and their eleven-year-old daughter Maya were here, preparing to say goodbye. Ruth, David’s sister, would arrive on a last minute transatlantic flight, booked hastily when Ruth discovered what we were now being told… David wasn’t expected to live through the night.

The apartment was an old-fashioned, straight through ‘railroad apartment:’ three open rooms in a line. The bedroom took up the center of the apartment like the captain’s cabin in a submarine. As she talked I peeked in. In a broad metal-framed bed the figure of a man was laid out, swaddled in white sheets like a shroud. 

“Let’s have some tea,” said Micilín, selecting British tea bags from the cupboard. Cookies were already fanned out on a plate. “This green tea kettle is a pretty good stand-in for an English teapot. I hope it works for you.”

I nodded and fiddled with my camera strap hooked diagonally across my chest. It was an old Canon rangefinder I’d taken to carrying around for those unscheduled candid photographs of people in the street, hopefully with the perfect balance of content and composition. The ‘decisive moment.’ Only, that morning I’d opened the camera’s back to slide a brand new, coiled roll of black and white film into its body, feeling the weight of a promise in the roll of unexposed film. There’s still an unconscious counter in my head that resets to 36 and counts down every time I shoot a new roll of film. When I have a camera up in front of my face, the world is contained in a tiny rectangle; my perception of depth is altered—one eye is closed—and my concerns are on focus, exposure and composition. Whatever images I record it is done almost mechanically.

A young girl, thin and surly, slipped by and scooped up a cookie. Headphones and an iPad held at arm’s length signaled keep back. She disappeared into the cave of her bunk bed. Maya, David’s daughter. The last time we’d met, he’d talked about his divorce and how the separation would affect her. When was that? I’d never even met Maya, now here she was, straggly long hair, petulant and evasive. How many times had David and I met in the last decade? And how many more rain-checks? Within the time it took for Maya to appear in this world and turn into this languid tween, I too had been married and divorced. I was ashamed I hadn’t been a better friend.

“Do you want to say hello to David?” said Micilín. 

Cancer got my dad three years ago. But when I last saw him in England, I’d been told his final days were weeks or months so I flew back to the US for Thanksgiving. And when the phone rang—at exactly the moment I slid a sheet of turkey into lake of cranberry sauce—I knew. One thing you could always say about my father, he was never late for dinner. I said goodbye to my Father and there was peace between us, but I hadn’t been there when he passed.

We followed David’s partner in the gloom. There’s been some mistake, I thought, this wasn’t David. He looked nothing like the man I knew! This man was tiny and frail. David was bigger than this, a little shorter than I and like me a fading redhead. This man who lay on his back, slack jawed with a wispy beard, weighed no more than 100 pounds.

“David?” said Micilín, “April and Neville are here to see you.” We stood by his bed grinning like idiots. “Hi David,” we chimed. 

Vibrating with shock I wanted to be sure—to confirm David’s identity—so I climbed up onto the bed to look into his eyes. I flopped down in the position Micilín assumes in the picture. David’s lips were drawn back in a dry smile and his eyes were dilated. He was so doped up, I wasn’t sure he could see me, but Micilín said he was still communicating with hand squeezes and some sporadic nodding and blinking, so I took his hand—it was wiry and warm and it twitched when I lifted it. In his glassy eyes something sparked and faraway I heard his laugh.

“You bastard, David. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick?” I said.

The remark shot out of me with finesse of a bullet. It should have slid out as a joke, putting an end to all this ‘nice’ respectful nonsense that seemed appropriate but David would have hated. April started to cry, she smiled at me—she knew what I was trying to do—and I started to cry too. On the bed, close to David, I held back the floodgates. I shook it off and he watched me in silence, his gaze was unwavering. Maya slithered up through the knot of adults onto the bed and gently squeezed a juice box over his dry lips.

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We stepped back to the kitchen. Maya’s mother, David’s ex-wife Junko, appeared from somewhere smiling broadly and we all came together. David’s sister Ruth arrived and bustled in with her bags. We stepped back to give her space.

I thought of another photographer and Brit, our mutual friend, Jason. David introduced us a few days after 9/11. Jason and I had made a short film about our experiences during the terrorist attacks. He was preparing to leave for East Africa. I suggested to Micilín I invite him over. She brightened at the prospect and encouraged us to call all David’s friends. April made a list and I called Jason. I explained the situation to him, trying not to be too melodramatic. But in the end I had to be explicit.

“Jason, mate, you coming by ‘in the next couple of days’… probably isn’t an option. They say he won’t last the night.”

“Oh God,” he said, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

People started arriving. Mourners-to-be formed a line into the bedroom. Some of them I knew only as acquaintances, yet they all greeted me with warmth. What is this thing? I thought, a wake? No, a ‘goodbye’ party, perhaps? 

“A celebration!” said Micilín. “A celebration of his life, don’t you think? Send him off in style! I’m sure he’d protest but it’s a good thing—all his friends are around him.”

“Well, he doesn’t have a lot of choice.” I said, and we laughed. It was my first real laugh of the evening. 

Micilín cranked up a playlist of his favorite music. We texted Jason: Pick up some beer! We ordered pizza and haggled over the toppings. An old-fashioned house party kicked into gear. People drifted in and out of David’s room with beer cans and folded pizza. They sat on the bed and talked to him. They waved phones in his face as some of his dearest friends scattered across the globe said goodbye via video chat. Maya, intrigued by the company, walked amongst us with big shy eyes. Junko fired up the Playstation for her and pretty soon her voice could be heard above the adults. 

The girl forced a handset into my hands and quickly flipped through the menu on the screen. She pressed her little fingers on my big, stubby thumbs to activate the buttons on my controller, explaining in detail how to play. We plunged headlong into Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. It was a ‘first-person-shooter’ with close quarters fighting, bayonets and pistols, hand-to-hand combat; brutal. I fought next to Maya and we laughed and shouted as we guided our rifles towards a jungle outpost whilst our friends egged us on. Her eyes shone at me as she bent double and giggled as I repeatedly tossed hand grenades at my own feet. Junko feigned horror as her little girl dispatched Japanese troops with the rat-a-tat of a Thompson machine gun and just for a moment, we forgot why we were there. 

David was now a centerpiece for our strange communion. Life and laughter encircled him, lifting him up. He became buoyant on a raft of friendship and laughter. And even through the fog of morphine, I’m certain he heard the sound of his daughter’s laughter, once again.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 11.01.10 AM

Sometime after nine o’clock, World War II paused. Friends and family slumped into a slow mumble.

I stood in the kitchen talking when a heart-wrenching moan drifted through the apartment. The house fell silent.

I slipped into the bedroom behind Ruth and stood at the foot of the bed next to Junko. In the half-light my fingers stumbled on the dials of the old Canon. The small camera had a fast lens and was loaded with black and white film but I knew not to trust the exposure meter—it would never cope with the dark. I rotated the shutter ring on the barrel of the lens down to a 1/4 of a second and steadied myself against the doorframe, lifting the camera to my eye. I brought the two half moons in the viewfinder together and focused on David’s gaunt face. 

Maya slid onto the bed at David’s head at a right angle his body. Ruth stood at the side of the bed and took David’s hand in hers. Maya stood up to give Ruth room to sit down,

Click.

The shutter was a thunderclap to me, but only Junko noticed. She indulged me with a smile; she too saw the beauty in the scene, and David—an advocate of reportage—would have scolded me if I hadn’t made the shot. Still, he was my friend and I trembled in my task. When Maya climbed back up onto the bed she curled her legs around her father and shuffled up around his head once again, burying her face in the pillows. She was crying very softly. David’s breathing rattled slightly, his chest rose and fell slowly and evenly. With my thumb I slowly cranked the film advance lever. 

Click.

Ruth—her left hand still holding David’s—knelt down and put a hand on Maya’s knee to reassure her and set her still. 

Click.

Ruth held tight to David’s hand as Maya sat up on her elbow. For a second David and Maya seemed connected vertically through the same focal plane by a thread—I held the focus there. 

Click.

Ruth looked up at David and Maya looked over at Micilín. Micilín cooed slow words of reassurance in her lover’s ear. 

Click.

I let the camera slide back to my hip and I left them in a ring of love and grief. These two women and a girl sent a current of warmth and compassion swirling around the room. Eddies of smoke and sparks spun out in a hearth, reappearing as quickly as they disappeared. 

In the kitchen, numbers had dwindled. Micilín came out of the bedroom to our expectant faces.

“He doesn’t want to go yet,” she said, “he’s having too much of a good time!”

She grinned at us and we let out a collective sigh; the rubber band unwound. Maya lay quietly next to her father, the kettle bubbled on the stove, and at that moment it seemed appropriate to leave. 

April and I found ourselves traveling together in the same direction home. I don’t remember what we said to each other on the journey, though I’m sure we must have talked. I do remember spilling a new reservoir of tears when she switched trains. We hugged each other and promised to check in the morning. 

I descended the stairs to my connecting subway train deep underground. At this time of night, the line that would take me home was a ‘local’—it stopped at every station—and the few anonymous souls accompanying me made no eye contact. Slowly, I was ferried through the underworld to my destination. A few stops before the end of the line, I got off and trudged up the stairs to the world above. 

I woke to my phone rattling at my bedside. I fumbled for my glasses; I’d overslept. Two texts. 

From April: ‘You ok?’

The other from Jason: ‘cheers geezer. sad. but glad I could be there’

I replied to April, ‘ just woke up. I’m ok. talk later 

I fed Cato, fired up the coffeepot and opened all the windows to the New York summer. A neighbor chuckled, a siren wailed, Cato crunched her food.

The phone buzzed again. A third text. Micilín.

“David just left us at 10.47. Me and Maya and Ruth were with him. He was at peace and he looks so beautiful now. The room is just bursting with the love you and all his friends brought over…And His phone has been blowing up with messages of love and stories of laughter and gratitude which we continued to read to him. Thanks for giving him the royal send off that he deserves.”

I put down my coffee and called Jason.

A few days later I stood at a large lightbox at the photo lab. Backlit and magnified in silver and plastic, the five reversed frames of David and Maya on the bed seemed more permanent between my fingers than they ever would enlarged as positives on my computer screen. Like a Cyclops I scanned the tail of blue cellulose, but couldn’t decide which image was the strongest, giving the scene the most dignity and, most importantly, recording the event accurately. I needed counsel. David’s face flared at the edge of my loupe like a crack in the sun and for a moment I could see him grinning, healthy and animated, eager to help me choose. That one.

Originally published December 2015 in The Curator Magazine A college fund has been set up for David’s daughter, Maya. Please consider contributing to it here.

Quaaludes: The forgotten victory in the War on Drugs

 

Yesterday’s resignation of the Head of the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michele Leonhart, amid sex scandals and bitter conflicts with Obama’s White House, comes at a time when the agency should be looking back at their golden years. Thirty years ago Reagan’s DEA were, for a change, on the winning side in the ‘War on Drugs.’

In 1978, when the pharmaceutical company Rorer sold the trademark for the much maligned and often misused party drug Quaalude to Lemmon, the chairman of the company,  John Eckman, remarked:

“Quaalude accounted for less than 2% of our sales but created 98% of our headaches.” — Lawrence Journal-World 1982

Just as Xerox became a proprietary eponym for photocopiers, Quaalude became the brand name for methaqualone—the disco-era party drug known as Disco Biscuits, Vitamin Q or simply, ‘Ludes. The Lemmon pharmaceutical company tried desperately to rejuvenate Quaalude’s reputation. At the peak of the drug’s notoriety, the company’s lawyers would write 25-30 letters a day to newspapers and police departments across the country explaining that the drug’s use by partygoers and the cause of overdoses was an illegally produced version of methaqualone. In 1981, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 95-99% of the methaqualone drugs confiscated were not Quaalude. The letter-writing campaign continued until Lemmon sold the trademark to Pfizer, who, 30 years ago, capitulated to the bad press and discontinued manufacturing the drug.

Many prescribing doctors considered Quaalude an excellent daytime sedative and sleep aid. But coma-induced deaths through misuse and the horror headlines scared them. Sales of the Quaalude brand spiraled down. The drug was particularly popular because of the hypnotic effect created when users fought the urge to sleep. Tom used the drug in the 1970s and ’80s in New York City:

“Studio 54, Mudd club, a real wave of people who came to New York were using it. We were all artists, in the village, there was music, art, CBGB’s. ‘Ludes make you feel warm and fuzzy—everything’s wonderful but it could get really messy if you drank. A friend of mine went into a coma. I’d take 3 at a time and couldn’t stand up.

I had a pockets for downers (Valium and Quaalude) and a pocket for uppers (cocaine and speed). I’d try to balance them to stay up. It’s a good sex drug, too—it just made you kinda love everyone!”

It was a national problem but Quaalude’s sudden fall from grace was due not to falling sales, however, but to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In possibly the only victory in the “War on Drugs,” by the end of the ’80s the sale of illegal methaqualone pills had disappeared. It was all due to the head of an obscure DEA department, the Office of Diversion Control (OD). His name was Gene Haislip.

The DEA hit traffickers and bootleggers where they could of course, crushing pill-mills in traditional raids and sting operations, but the pills were being smuggled in from Colombia, where the DEA had no jurisdiction. They needed a different approach. Haislip started working on a novel form of drug prevention. A style of operation that became known as “chemical control.”

Methaqualone was a chemical compound so sophisticated that Colombian criminal cartels couldn’t make it themselves—they had to buy it from somewhere else.

Haislip_William&MaryMagazine.jpg

Gene Haislip died in 2003 but his daredevil exploits in Colombia are legendary at the DEA. Through his consulting work and high-profile interviews over the years, the picture of a dedicated public servant and a fearless adventurer has emerged.

After some investigation into the source of the illegal drug, he found himself flying into the major Colombian port of Barranquilla on a rickety DC-3 airplane. Haislip recalls a meeting with the head of customs in a crumbling government building:

“When I started to explain the problem, this official immediately froze up and said, ‘We can’t talk here.’ He put his automatic in his belt and motioned for us to follow him. We went to an area that was completely abandoned, nothing but empty rooms and a few pieces of furniture. We sat over in the far corner of one of these rooms, guns on the table. I knew I was into something fairly heavy at this point.”

(Quoted in the William and Mary magazine ).

The pills were made by Colombian drug lords. Local authorities tipped off Haislip to information discovered in the seizure of a methaqualone shipment intercepted on the docks at Barranquilla. This told the DEA the essential component of the bootleg Quaalude were coming from Hungary. Haislip followed the paper trail through Hungary, to Austria and Germany. Each time he found a legal source he shut it down with local government cooperation and pressure from the U.S. Gradually, the DEA hacked at the heads of the Hydra until Colombians had no drug powder to make their counterfeit pills, and they simply gave up. It was a revolutionary approach and perfectly suited to a drug that needed few ingredients that couldn’t be grown or manufactured from other sources.

But the success against methaqualone remains the DEA’s only “win” in the War on Drugs. The next time Haislip tried to use the principle of chemical control to lock out the supply of a deadly drug, he was shut down by the people who should have had his back, the people who instigated Reagan’s “War on Drugs”: the U.S. Congress.

In the ’60s and ’70s Northern California’s outlaw biker gangs knocked out a homemade speed called “crank” or crystal meth. Nevertheless, it still represented a headache to law enforcement. Gene Haislip and the DEA saw a way to shut it down before it started doing serious business. Just like methaqualone, crystal methamphetamine also relied on an imported chemical: ephedrine. It also happens to be the principal ingredient of decongestants and cold medicine and is also too complicated to be replicated in a home lab.

The cold medicine market is worth considerably more than the metaxalone market ever was worth (around $3 billion at the time). After all, the Quaalude brand meant so little to Pfizer that they just stopped making it. In 1989, the Office of Diversion Control with Haislip at the helm, proposed a federal law to stop criminals getting their hands on bulk loads of ephedrine. Just like the one that knocked out metaxalone. They wanted to control the importation of ephedrine and put cold medicine behind the counter. Big Pharma cried foul, no way were the DEA going to take a shot at their cash-cow. They lobbied congress and Haislip was forced to compromise. Ephedrine, in its purest form, would be regulated, cold medicines would not.

The new controls on ephedrine made it harder to get hold of the powder. Production fell by 60%. But in the early 1990s a huge spike in the quantity and quality of crystal meth on the streets of the Western U.S. shook up the DEA. It turned out the unregulated pseudoephedrine, ephedrine’s chemical cousin, was interchangeable with ephedrine as the ingredient for meth’s deadly cocktail. Criminals were importing massive quantities of pseudoephedrine from the manufacturers in India. Superlabs in California of Breaking Bad proportions, popped up once again.

The Haislip and the DEA convinced Congress to regulate pseudoephedrine, but again was forced to kneel down to the Big Pharma. The powder could be regulated but not the end product: the pills. Meth labs folded as the ephedrine ran out but it wasn’t long before the backroom cooks figured out that with some effort, pseudoephedrine could be extracted from the pills themselves. In late 90s, the U.S. entered the second wave of the meth epidemic. It had now crossed the Mississippi and become a national problem.

Every time Haislip and the DEA’s suggested legislation, it was watered down. Criminals would find a loophole and continue to manufacture meth. DEA proposals to issue licenses to import pseudoephedrine were amended by Congress at the last minute to allow legitimate companies time to adjust to the new regulations. This led to the absurd situation of the DEA issuing temporary licenses to fake companies that then pumped out more meth.

In 2004, pseudoephedrine was finally behind the counter and just as production in the U.S. was slipping back to 1980s’ levels, cooking in Mexico reached epic proportions. Mexican pharmaceutical companies were importing 100 tons more pseudoephedrine than they needed to make cold medicine in their domestic market. Once again, the Mexican crime cartels were skimming or importing pseudoephedrine through shell companies and using their established smuggling routes flooding the U.S. with tons of high-quality dope.

Only pressure on the Mexican government to create legislation stemmed the tide, but there was no going back. When Congress denied the DEA’s request to control all types of ephedrine, the window of opportunity to shut out meth was closed.

“I have to concede [that] in retrospect it was a mistake.”

Haislip said of the concession to congress, in a 2004 Frontline documentary on PBS.

But in later years he remained satisfied:

“Even if you can’t completely solve a problem, you can improve it. Does it matter if 1,000 die instead of 10,000? You’re damn right it matters, by 9,000…That’s 9,000 who will live, and all their kids.”

Originally published in TheFix.com.