August 8, 2005
Written by C.N.
The New York Times reports that law enforcement officials recently arrested dozens of convenience store owners and clerks in northwest rural Georgia for selling materials and ingredients commonly used to make the drug methamphetamine. However, the article notes that almost all of the people arrested are Asian Indians and that cultural and languages differences may have played a part in the arrests:
Forty-four of the defendants [out of 49 total] 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 biggest problem, defense lawyers say, is the language barrier between an immigrant store clerk and the undercover informants who used drug slang or quick asides to convey that they were planning to make methamphetamine. “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.”
For the Indians, their lives largely limited to store and home, it is as if they have fallen through a looking glass into a world they were content to keep on the other side of the cash register. “This is the first time I heard this – I don’t know how to pronounce – this meta-meta something,” said Hajira Ahmed, whose husband is in jail pending charges that he sold cold medicine and antifreeze at their convenience store.
But David Nahmias, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said the evidence showed that the clerks knew that the informants posing as customers planned to make drugs. Federal law makes it illegal to sell products knowing, or with reason to believe, that they will be used to produce drugs.
The article goes on to note that because such a overwhelming proportion of those arrested were Asian Indians, law enforcement authorities are being accused of purposely singling out Indian stores in the area for prosecution, a belief also held by many back in India where this story has been highly publicized.
Obviously I do not know the details of these cases, but many of the charges seem seem rather dubious to me. It is one thing for sting informants to “drop hints” that they were going to use the medicine and materials they bought at the convenience stories to make drugs. However, it is a completely different matter as to whether or not the store owners and clerks clearly understood the slang and idioms the informants were using.
In more general terms, I am also highly skeptical about the tactic of targeting merchants who sell legal products that just might be used illegally. From the article, it seems like most store owners were following the letter of the law and restricting sales to individual customers. If the government wants to tightly control their sales so that they can’t be used illegally, then why don’t they just make them available by prescription only, rather than targeting merchants who are trying to obey the letter of the law and just out make a decent living?
We’ll have to follow this story as it unfolds.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Cultural & Language Differences Lead to Pharmacy Arrests" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2005/08/cultural-language-differences-lead-to-pharmacy-arrests/> ().
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