The Drug You Don’t Want

By Jonathan D. Boatwright

If I asked you to name a government that willfully gave excessive doses of medication to its prisoners, in particular a medication that can cause severe mental disturbances in those receiving it, you’d probably guess North Korea, or Iran, or some other tyrant led backwater in a remote part of the world. Well, you’d be wrong.  The United States Military administered excessive doses of an anti-malarial drug known as Mefloquine without performing needed tests to establish the presence of the disease.

Mefloquine was developed at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Over the decade encompassing the 1970’s mefloquine underwent several tests before being passed off to the F. Hoffman Laroche Company for civilian production.  Fast-forward to the post-9/11 world and detainees being brought to the facility at Guantanamo Bay are processed into the facility receiving an initial dose of 750mg, with a subsequent dose of 500mg twelve hours later. Why is this significant? In the years since mefloquine has been developed, numerous adverse effects have been discovered, the list being long and extensive. To me this is highly disturbing. In part there are several indications that the administering of the medication was unnecessary or was not verified before being administered.

In a piece for Tropical Medicine and International Health , Dr. Remington L. Nevin cites facts such as; the military placing limits on the use of mefloquine due to complications in diagnosing post traumatic stress disorder; the favoring of  safer and more tolerable drugs over mefloquine for use as a prophylaxis in people who travel abroad; South Asian contractors not receiving the medication upon arrival at Guantanamo, and experts who favor early laboratory diagnosis for people coming to the U.S. from countries where malaria is endemic.  Dr. Nevin puts forth several possibilities as to why mefloquine was administered to Gitmo detainees. The most ominous and disturbing being that the use of the drug was “Informed and motivated at least in part by knowledge of the drug’s adverse neuropsychiatric effects and the presumed plausible deniability of claims of misuse in the context of its seemingly legitimate clinical or public health indication.” In other words, it was a viable excuse and done on purpose. But knowing the attitude of the average American and our elected leaders towards torture and due process for an accused terrorist, I won’t hold my breath.

Another key element of this matter is one of legality.  A matter Professor Mark Denbeaux takes up in his own analysis of the use of mefloquine at Guantanamo Bay.   In expounding on the legal element of this matter, Professor Denbeaux analyzes 18 U.S. Code § 2340 and the governments legal opinion on the matter. In an August 2002 Office of Legal Counsel memo, the government expresses it views on the matter to be that “specific intent” to violate the relevant portion of the law must be present. Thereby, making a “good faith defense” possible if the person in question believed that they were acting in such a way that would not violate the law. The OLC goes on, in my opinion, to echo the very sentiment of section 2340 by saying that in administering a particular drug or taking a particular action the result would have to,  “penetrate to the core of an individual’s ability to perceive the world around him, substantially interfering with his cognitive abilities, or fundamentally alter his personality.” When looking at the long list of adverse effects, it is clear that is a possibility in numerous ways.

To be clear, I echo Dr. Nevins call for an investigation into this matter, not merely because I believe the potentially administering this drug treatment to be immoral, but because I believe that some of those who oversaw and took part in the administering of mefloquine may have believed they were truly doing the right thing. And that they deserve the opportunity to prove as much in a military court room. That being said, in a world where government routinely classifies documents to hide its own illegal actions or merely its own potential embarrassment, and where the “states secret” privilege is invoked to end legal challenges to potential Constitutional violations, I do not hold out much hope that this issue will be addressed in any meaningful way until the American people realize that it is immoral to ignore or champion actions which violate the law, and any good sense of morality.

I encourage you to read the source material on which I have based my thought and come to your own conclusions.