Manhattan 'stress clinics' exploited the middle class

From Wall Street in dark suits they came: accountants, brokers, lawyers, joining a stream of other young professionals heading uptown to a set of paneled offices that offered instant escape from lives filled with stress.

Inside, at 420 Madison Ave., nurses glided to and fro. Patients filled out medical questionnaires, took X-rays, sat in waiting rooms, talked earnestly to doctors in white coats.

At one point in 1979, 2,000 patients a month walked through the doors. Prescriptions totaling 2.5 million doses were written. Turnover was $1 million in the first year of operation alone.

Business, it seemed, was booming.

But it was all a sham, a criminal facade. The premises were called ''The Manhattan Center for Research into Stress and Pain Control.'' The center existed for the sole reason of dispensing tablets containing the drug methaqualone, which is widely sold under the brand name Quaalude.

The drug is a powerful relaxant and sedative developed in 1956 as a ''safe'' alternative to barbiturates.

The tablets sprang into vogue in the late 1970s and are still trafficked illicitly through free-trade zones and busy ports around the world. It has been the object of great concern by the United Nations Division of Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, and the target of a long and so far successful campaign by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). International crackdown promised

Governments including the People's Republic of China, Hungary, Austria, West Germany, and Switzerland have recently promised to crack down on illegal supplies. Many shipments are smuggled into Colombia, made up into tablets, and sent by the millions to the US.

The profits been so big that production of methaqualone has been way above legitimate requirements. By 1981, world stocks were estimated at 150 tons, whereas legitimate medical use in all countries was no more than 25 tons. That included a US quota of nine tons, since reduced to a mere two tons.

A major producer is the French state-owned pharmaceutical company Roussel Uclaf. A spokesman in Paris would not discuss production or export, but said restrictions on production and sales in France were strict. ''It is as hard to get Mandrax (the French trade name for methaqualone) as it is to get morphine,'' she said.

The Manhattan Stress Center, details of which appear here for the first time, was a classic example of the lengths to which traffickers will go, and the range of laws they are willing to break. It is also an example of law enforcement techniques which, this time, eventually succeeded.

The man behind the center - and other centers formerly located at at 445 North Franklin St., Chicago, and 31 St. James St., Boston - is now serving a 15 -year jail sentence after what the DEA calls the longest criminal trial in the history of the southern district of New York - 51/2 months. The trial lasted even longer than the one which broke the ''French Connection'' a decade ago.

The moving force was a tall, well-dressed con man known as Herman Witt, alias Dewitt Witt, alias Woody Witt, and said to be a fluent conversationalist about architecture and the arts.

His first idea was to operate diet clinics in 1976, dispensing a combination of amphetamines (to suppress the appetite) and Quaalude depressants (to offset the effects of the amphetamines).

There was more profit, however, in dispensing Quaaludes alone. Only overweight people could be treated at a diet clinic. Many more people believe themselves victims of stress. He opened the Manhattan Stress Center on Madison Ave. in July 1979. It ran until July 1982.

According to drug enforcement agent John Buckley, who coordinated the case, Witt employed more than 100 doctors by the fall of 1979. Since New York State law required triplicate prescriptions and a master computer flagged any doctor who prescribed more than 50 times a day, no doctor was allowed to write more than 48 prescriptions each day. Lucrative for 'doctors' and 'patients'

Doctors could work no more than four hours a day, two days a week. Their payment: $75 an hour, plus weekly amounts of about $600 in cash on the side.

''They didn't want street people coming in,'' Buckley told me in Washington. ''They wanted solid, middle-class professionals, strictly collar-and-tie types. That's what they got.''

The charge for each visit was $125. Every ''patient'' received an identical prescription for 53 Quaalude tablets (a number chosen to minimize detection by the state) and almost all were directed to the same pharmacy at 896 First Avenue in Manhattan. The cost of having one prescription filled was between $15 and $20 .

These figures provided not only a ready source for an addictive drug, but opened the way for illicit double-dealing as well. ''Patients'' were in effect paying roughly $3 per tablet. Street prices in New York were between $4 and $5 a tablet, and on weekend nights rose to $9 to $10.

By 1982, most of the tablets dispensed appeared to be finding their way onto the street, according to Mr. Buckley. Witt opened four more clinics in New York. By going to a different one each weekday, abusers could obtain 265 tablets a week, with a maximum profit of $1,855.

By working hard, a ''patient'' could make $7,420 a month ($89,040 a year), doing nothing but buying and selling the small white tablets.

The entire operation was a miniature gold mine built on addiction and greed.

Eventually, the authorities found the lead they were looking for through the ''director'' of the main clinic, a South African doctor named Ronald Asherson.

Asherson's payment was $500 a day, plus another $500 a day under the table. But he still liked to deal in drugs on the side, and the DEA caught him selling to an undercover agent. Arrested at 10 p.m. on day, he had agreed to cooperate by 4 a.m. the next day in return for his freedom. By 9 a.m., he was back in the clinic, this time wired to record the voices of others. The law quickly moved in.

During the trial in New York, Witt was out of jail on $2 million bail. He managed to put out two ''contracts'' to have Asherson killed, Mr. Buckley said.

Asherson had been allowed by the court to visit family in London. A ''hit man'' traveled from Chicago to kill him, but Asherson was tipped off and fled back to federal protection in New York.

A bill is pending in Congress to reduce the amount of methaqualone produced in the US from two tons this year to zero. US manufacturer halting production

However, the sole US manufacturer, the Lemmon Company of Sellersville, Pa., has just announced that it is ceasing production because of adverse publicity.

Meanwhile traffickers in Colombia have been detected as the main illegal suppliers of tablets to the US. And US drug enforcement agents have discovered 50-kilogram drums passing through free-trade zones in Hamburg, in Panama, and in the Bahamas.

Some drums were labeled with long Latin tags that baffled customs officials. Others were described simply as ''hazardous chemicals.'' The West Germans said they had no idea that illegal shipments of methaqualone were going to Colombia and promised to try to shut them off.

Austria and Hungary said their trade was through brokers, not legitimate companies, and both promised similar action. The Swiss were reluctant at first to admit the problem, but changed when shown photographs of barrels in Colombia bearing the names of Swiss companies.

The final source of supply to be tackled were traffickers in China. Several UN and US officials visited Peking this past summer, showing photographs of barrels with Chinese characters on them. Saying that exports were strictly illegal, the Chinese authorities have promised action.

New problems, however, have begun to crop up. According to Interpol, French Mandrax tablets are now being diverted to South Africa, Nigeria, and Zambia.

Finally, counterfeiters in Colombia and Mexico, deprived of methaqualone itself, are making up fake Quaalude tablets with at least 27 different substances, many highly dangerous.

A final note of warning from Gene Haislip, deputy assistant administrator of the DEA in Washington, to a congressional committee in October this year:

''While we have been effective in curtailing the supply of methaqualone, we have not significantly reduced the demand of the abusing population.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.