High Tide: The detergent drug dealers dig in

For a change of scene, my column today will leave politicians to stew in their own juices and instead focus on criminals. Some cynics may wonder if there's any difference.

For a change of scene, my column today will leave politicians to stew in their own juices and instead focus on criminals. Some cynics may wonder if there's any difference.

To answer this objection, I can only say that while politicians are predictably the same, criminals are breaking new and surprising ground in their criminality.

In a development that shatters stereotypes, drug dealers and others are dealing in laundry detergent stolen from supermarkets and selling it on the black market. Or the well-laundered market, as the case may be.

It would be one thing if the detergent were being used to make a drug that puts the nostrils through a rinse-and-wash cycle and makes drug addicts smell like springtime. That would be understandable. But apparently the detergent is just used to wash clothes.

This shocking revelation came recently in an Associated Press story, which reported that police in suburban Washington raided the home of a suspected drug dealer and found not only cocaine but also 20 large bottles of liquid Tide detergent. The customers were paying for drugs with Tide, the new hot item in some parts of the country. This gives new meaning to the term "money-laundering."


The story offered some explanation for the trade in illicit detergent: A large bottle sells for about $20 and does not spoil. The risk to criminals is relatively small and drug dealers actually don't make much money and like to have other popular consumer products to sell to their customers on the side.

That criminals have brand loyalty to one particular detergent is part of the oddity. Perhaps the makers of Tide could incorporate this into their advertising: "Next time you get down and dirty with the law, choose Tide, the choice of nefarious characters across America. And when the cops tell you to come clean, remember to reach for Tide."

On second thought, perhaps not.

As cleanliness is said to be next to godliness, excepting some Old Testament prophets with locusts in their beards, all of this criminal laundering seems so wrong. It is just another example of the general erosion of standards in modern life.

It wasn't so long ago that we could depend on lowlifes to keep the dirt that adheres from living so low. Scuzzballs were dependably scuzzy and the mean streets did not smell like flowers. Not any more, not with the bad guys dealing liquid washing detergent.

Of course, at the other end of the wrongdoing spectrum, well-dressed criminals have always existed. White-collar criminals must work hard to make sure their collars are up to industry standards. Members of the Mafia have always prided themselves on wearing natty suits as they go about making their targets swim with the fishes. And, of course, con men would only be conning themselves if they did not look spiffy.

As much as these criminal acts are to be deplored, we can all agree that at least the perpetrators are acting in a professional manner. I, for one, certainly do not want to be shot by anyone who does not have any pride in his appearance.

But the well-pressed criminals are surely not the customers buying laundry detergent on the street. It is fair to assume that a person who buys contraband detergent is not someone who supports the Chamber of Commerce.


It is hard to know whether an interest in personal grooming and cleanliness among formerly grubby miscreants is a positive development or not. Could they one day be rehabilitated into lawful detergent users? Frankly, I don't trust them. Any person who would use stolen suds to clean his duds is a probably a dud himself.

One can imagine the scenes of degradation:

"Hey, man, you want some dope?" "No, man, what I want is some softener. You got some softener?"

"No, man, I just got regular detergent."

"Hey, man, people want softener, man, detergent ain't enough. What sort of walking convenience store are you?"

This is what the police must deal with, and I wish them luck. While they did not join the force to put detergent kingpins in jail, they must do their duty in a changing world.

As usual, William Shakespeare predicted this. In his play "Julius Caesar," himself famous for turning up to battles in a finely scrubbed toga, Shakespeare wrote: "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

There is Tide in the affairs of men. No mention of softener, though.


Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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