Feb. 24, 2006 – Drug-law reform activists and advocates for immigrants rallied in Georgia Tuesday to challenge the recent arrests of 49 convenience store clerks. Law enforcement officers rounded up the cashiers as part of a Justice Department initiative aimed at curtailing methamphetamine production in Georgia.
Forty-four of the clerks were of Indian descent, three of them undocumented, according to Rediff, a newspaper for Indian expatriates.
Earlier this month, 23 of the merchants pleaded guilty to charges of selling items like antifreeze, matchbooks and ephedrine to people who said they intended to make the highly addictive drug known as "crystal meth." The "customers" were working with a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-led effort known as Operation Meth Merchant.
According to DEA documents unsealed last year, law enforcement personnel sent people posing as customers into convenience stores in Northwest Georgia with instructions to purchase products that can be used to make crystal meth. Posing as would-be meth-makers, they were instructed to tell clerks they had plans to concoct the drug, a potent and cheap form of speed.
The sting operation netted 49 people and sixteen companies before the Justice Department made the program public. Those who pleaded to knowingly selling ingredients used to make methamphetamines or are found guilty of the same could face as many as twenty years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocate for the decriminalization of drugs, termed the practice of expecting store owners to police customersâ€™ purchase of legal products "ridiculous."
"The war on drugs has failed so miserably that overzealous law enforcement officials are arresting law-abiding citizens for legally doing their jobs," the Alliance said. "Ending methamphetamine abuse is an important goal, but we need to focus our resources on treatment, not on locking up convenience-store clerks who are neither making nor selling methamphetamine."
In a statement announcing that it was releasing information related to Operation Meth Merchant, US Attorney David Nahmias alleged that the arrestees were greedy business owners seeking to make money off what law enforcement agencies see as an epidemic.
"These businesses and their owners and employees need to understand that they are feeding the meth epidemic," Nahmias said. "They need to understand â€“ and todayâ€™s arrests demonstrate â€“ that if people sell products knowing or having reason to believe that the products will be used to make meth, they will face federal prosecution, lengthy prison sentences, and forfeiture of their businesses and other assets."
This past November, the ACLU joined with two South Asian advocacy groups and other activists in Georgia to protest prosecutions stemming from the operation. In a statement, the groups noted that three-quarters of the convenience stores located in the operation area are owned by whites, yet the DEA program specifically targeted 24 stores, 23 of them Indian-owned.
"The USâ€™s drug policies and enforcement have often had a devastating impact on communities of color whose voices and political power are marginalized," said Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT). "We are concerned that with Operation Meth Merchant in Georgia, South Asian community members have become the new targets in our countryâ€™s War on Drugs."
SAALT is a national nonprofit advocate for South Asians living in the US. They were joined in the statement by Raksha, a group with a similar mission, as well as the ACLU.
"There are too many unanswered questions about the validity of evidence against these store clerks for the prosecutions to go forward in good conscience," ACLU lawyer Christina Alvarez added.