Sacramento News & Review

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Are You Being Tracked?

It looks fairly innocuous, a metal-and-plastic square with wires coiled up like an angular snail, a lot like the anti-theft tag you'd find if you pried apart a book you'd just bought at a chain store. But it's a Radio Frequency Identification tag, RFID for short, and each one has a tiny antenna that can broadcast information about the product, or person, to which it is attached.

To the industry that makes and markets RFID, it's simply the next logical step from bar codes: providing a cheap, easy way to keep products on the shelves, consumers happy and companies making money.

But to many privacy-rights advocates, RFID tags could be the forerunner to nightmare scenarios in which RFID technology is the Trojan horse that brings Big Brother into your home, snooping through your medicine cabinets, fridge and underwear drawer to find out what you do, buy and believe, and, ultimately, what you are.

This small tag has, so far, largely flown under the radar of consumers and the mainstream press. But in early October, privacy-rights advocates Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre published a book, "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," that has RFID proponents on the defensive.

The book holds up plenty of evidence to back up the fears of people who otherwise might be written off as tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists: IBM taking out a patent for a "person-tracking unit" that uses RFID tags to identify individuals, their movements and purchases in stores. Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart collaborating on a test that put cameras on a store shelf in Oklahoma and watched customers pluck lipsticks off an RFID-enabled shelf. A Sutter County grade school's experimental program requiring students to wear RFID-enabled badges to track their on-campus movements, thanks to supplies donated by the InCom Corp. based 50 miles northwest of Sacramento.

And the federal government plans to put RFID tags in passports, prescription medications and perhaps driver's licenses and postage stamps. One day, the "Spychips" authors fear, the tiny tags could be on everything from candy bars to dollar bills, compromising both privacy and personal security.

"I think the industry is waiting until they've done adequate PR to where the public will really embrace it," Albrecht said. "They want to get the infrastructure in place [and] find ways to integrate this technology in a way that is not going to scare people. They envision these things in our homes and our refrigerators and in the doorway of our kids' bedrooms."

In the weeks after "Spychips"' release, RFID supporters retaliated with rebuttals calling the book at best a futuristic fairy tale and at worst a delusional pack of lies by fringe alarmists.

As much as the RFID industry (which researchers say will be a $4.2 billion-a-year business by 2011) might want to ignore the book and its authors, it can't afford to do so. One RFID company has even bought space on Google, eBay and Amazon so when consumers search for "Spychips," a link to a 24-page rebuttal pops up.

"We felt we had a responsibility to educate consumers," said Nicholas Chavez, president of RFID Ltd., who co-authored the rebuttal released November 4. "They may get first blanch at the consumers through the book," he said. "There's a big fear out there that people will go read 'Spychips' and then go out and tell 10 people."

"Spychips," he said, casts RFID in "this sinister, Orwellian light" and presupposes applications that aren't within the current capabilities of the technology. RFID was first envisioned in the 1940s, combining the existing disciplines of radio broadcast technology and radar to communicate via reflected power, according to a history by AIM Global, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility. It wasn't until the late 1970s that technical capabilities caught up with the vision and RFID began to be applied commercially.

While "active" RFID tags send out radio signals, the more typical "passive" tags lie dormant until picked up by devices called readers, which can be positioned anywhere from a couple of inches to several feet away. The reader transmits the information to a database, where it can be stored. There's some debate over actual vs. intended read range, and Albrecht says she has registered results from as far as 15 feet away, but "you don't need these massive read ranges," Albrecht said, if RFID readers are placed in strategic locations, such as freeway onramps, grocery-store aisles, floors or doorways of homes. While some chips are smaller than a grain of sand, the ones currently in use on shipping crates are the size of a credit card.

It's a technology that ultimately will win over consumers through convenience and savings, said Gail Tom, a California State University, Sacramento, professor who teaches marketing courses and has written two books on consumer behavior.

And yet, she acknowledged, "if you went up to the average person on the street, they would not know what RFID is."

The "Spychips" book, she said, "alerts people to at least think about it." "Whenever you have new technology, there are concerns, and it's good to have concerns [due to] just the possibility that there could be Draconian and negative things. You would hope the good outweighs the bad," she said. "When UPC codes came out, it was somewhat controversial, too," Tom said, remembering worries that unscrupulous retailers would switch prices on unsuspecting customers.

"Using the analogy of the bar code is a good one, because it tracks the product, it doesn't track you," she said. "Marketers are not interested in individuals. They're interested in segments and clumps of people." A lot of the technology's success depends on how the RFID industry plays it, and Tom agreed it's now somewhat on the defensive. "It may not have occurred to marketers that they needed to publicize this, because they may not have seen a lot of the privacy issues."

Underwear tags and smart shopping carts

The RFID industry's adversaries are smart, passionate and media-savvy. With each new development, the authors of "Spychips" fire off an e-mail press release touting their successes or assailing their critics, turning industry leaders' own words against them. They've organized pickets at Wal-Marts, along with boycotts of companies such as Gillette and European retail store Tesco. (In 2003, that store collaborated to package RFID tags with Mach3 razor blades and surreptitiously snap photos of customers taking them from the shelf, and later at the cash register, in a test designed in part to identify potential shoplifters.) The clothing company Benetton canceled its plans to put RFID in underwear and other products after Albrecht launched an "I'd rather go naked" campaign.

Their message is resonating with anti-government Libertarians, conservative Christians and staunch American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) types. But that's not all. "It doesn't have a demographic," Albrecht said of "Spychips." "Everyone's got a reason not to be spied on."

Try to get biographical information out of Katherine Albrecht, and you'll get some unintended insight into what she's all about. She started taking college courses at age 15 but won't say where she grew up. Along with a master's in instructional technology from Harvard (she's working on her doctorate there), she has a bachelor's degree in international marketing but won't say from where. She's married and has kids but won't say how many. Her family lives somewhere in the state of New Hampshire.

She'll eat a loss before handing over her driver's license to reverse an overcharge at Kmart. She also refuses to use credit or ATM cards, only paying cash. Fittingly, she likes to wear mirrored sunglasses.

"I think I've always been kind of a rebel," Albrecht said. "The ultimate irony is that by being the person who is so openly advocating for privacy, I've become a public figure."

Disturbed by the concept of supermarket loyalty cards, which she feels blackmail shoppers into turning over personal data in exchange for lower prices, Albrecht decided to study the practice for her master's thesis. In 1999, she founded CASPIAN, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering.

So, it wasn't a reach when, a couple of years later, Albrecht heard about "smart" shopping carts that use RFID to track shoppers throughout a store. She researched and wrote an article for the Denver University Law Review and began attending RFID trade shows in the United States and Europe, where she heard the multiple, often conflicting messages companies were sending to clients, consumers and the general and trade presses.

Also in 1999, corporations and academia were collaborating to create the Auto-ID Center on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus. The nonprofit research project was founded and funded by Procter & Gamble, Gillette and the Uniform Code Council, which manages the bar code.

"It was just down the street from Harvard, where I was working on my doctorate," Albrecht said. In the spring of 2002, she signed up as a member of the media to attend a meeting at the Auto-ID Center, which was in the midst of its successful quest to get $300,000 each from companies that wanted to be sponsoring partners. "I was a fly on the wall taking notes in the back." By then, years into her anti-loyalty-card crusade, Albrecht was a confirmed skeptic and wasn't surprised that big business would want to gather personal information on and track customers, or that it would hope to fly under consumers' radar until RFID was embedded in society and it was too late to do anything about it. "What surprised and horrified me in 2002 was that they actually had a technology to do this."

And no one seemed to be talking about privacy issues.

"I came home that day so sickened and so reeling that I sat down with my husband and said, 'I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders because I know what's coming.'

"This is going to fundamentally change everything."

At another board meeting at MIT, Albrecht found herself sharing an elevator with the then-executive director of the Auto-ID Center, Kevin Ashton. Ashton, who was not available for comment and now works for a company that makes RFID readers, has told interviewers that item-level RFID tagging will become common between 2007 and 2010, with RFID common in the home between 2010 and 2020. He also envisions an "Internet of Things" that will link every item sold, from a can of Pepsi to an Armani dress shirt, to its own Web page, tracking it from manufacturer to warehouse to transport and beyond, until the tag is presumably killed by the consumer.

"He gets it. He sees the hugeness of this," Albrecht said of the man she considers her arch nemesis. "He embraces this future; I'm horrified."

To track or to serve?

In October 2003, the Auto-ID Center dissolved, and EPCGlobal took its place as a nonprofit entity standardizing what's referred to as Electronic Product Code. Unlike a bar code, which can reveal only the type of product you purchased, an EPC is a unique identifier that attaches a serial number to tell a reader exactly which item you have.

On the corporate level, Wal-Mart has been leading the push toward RFID in a retail setting. This year, the company began requiring the 100 top suppliers to its Texas stores to put RFID tags on their shipping pallets and cases of products at an estimated cost of millions of dollars a year.

"We are also on target to have the next top 200 suppliers live in January 2006," said Christi Gallagher, a media-relations representative for Wal-Mart. "We don't anticipate each item in the store being tagged for 10 to 15 years," she added. "Wal-Mart is not looking at RFID technology to track customers, but rather to serve them by enhancing its supply-chain process."

The industry envisions "smart shelves," which would alert stores when inventory is low, so they could restock or reorder, decreasing frustration and increasing sales. RFID also has anti-theft applications and could help expedite returns, product recalls and warranties.

Theoretically, the stores would pass savings on to customers.

In November 2003, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on a trial by Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart in which shoppers in a Broken Arrow, Okla., store were viewed remotely from Procter & Gamble headquarters as they took packages of Max Factor Lipfinity lipstick off a shelf. The boxes contained small RFID chips, and readers were embedded in the shelf liner.

Although representatives from both companies initially denied such a study ever took place, Wal-Mart now says it was anything but secret.

"There were signs present saying a test was being conducted," Gallagher said. Gallagher said Albrecht "may not fully understand the technology" and that, "because of our size, we are often the target of criticism by these special-interest groups with their own very narrow agendas, which typically do not reflect the philosophies of the majority of our customers."

The Department of Defense has ordered suppliers to affix RFID tags to shipping crates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called for RFID tags on pharmaceuticals' shipping containers, which it says would reduce counterfeiting and theft, and the companies that manufacture OxyContin and Viagra are already on board. The U.S. State Department announced in May that it was backing off on RFID-enabled passports after privacy-rights advocates pointed out that, lacking encryption, the tags could be read remotely by anyone, including terrorists who could stand in airports with handheld RFID readers, separating out Americans and allowing precision-level targeting. The scheduled rollout had been last summer.

Already, San Francisco Bay Area motorists use FasTrak to quickly traverse bridges and other toll areas, with an RFID-enabled device automatically debiting their accounts. A Mobil gas station Speedpass uses the same technology, as do VeriChips implanted in pets in case they get lost.

More recently, appliance makers have developed microwave ovens and washing machines that can scan bar codes and, eventually, read RFID tags on products to determine how and how long to cook or wash a product. The food industry could tag and track meat and other products, making recalls much simpler. If you have a keyless remote for your car, you are carrying around an RFID tag.

And for convenience's sake, the possibilities are exciting: Load up your shopping cart, wheel it through an RFID-enabled bay that will instantly scan the items, store loyalty card and payment card, and check out in seconds.

Privacy rights meet the spy chip

Simson Garfinkel, Ph.D., has seen all sides of the issue and says it's not a Utopia-vs.-Armageddon scenario. An author and instructor at Harvard, he is an expert in computer security and studies information policy and terrorism.

"The public is largely not participating in this debate, and unfortunately the decisions are being made right now," he said. For example, he said, MasterCard and Visa claim they have deployed 1.5 million RFID-enabled cards with no customer complaints. "The fact is these people don't even know that they're carrying the cards," Garfinkel said.

Garfinkel is a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a signer of the nonprofit's Position Statement on the Use of RFID in Consumer Products. The statement, which also is endorsed by CASPIAN, the ACLU and various consumer and privacy organizations, calls for a voluntary moratorium on item-level tagging and also seeks to preserve consumers' right to disable tags, avoid being tracked without consent and preserve anonymity.

Spurred in part by the Sutter County student-tagging controversy, the EFF and ACLU drafted a bill for the California Legislature that became Senate Bill 768, and Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, agreed to carry it. The bill currently is parked on the Assembly floor, to be resurrected for discussion in January. It calls for a three-year moratorium on the use of RFID technology on driver's licenses, library cards, student-body cards, Medi-Cal cards and other "mass distribution" documents. It also would set fines for "intentional remote reading" of someone's personal information without his or her knowledge and would require personal information on RFID tags to be encrypted.

"It's hardly a household word," Lee Tien, staff attorney for EFF, said of RFID. "But those people who are aware of it have fairly predictable reactions. [And] the more people know about it, they more concerned they are."

In October 2003, a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation found that while 43 percent of those who had heard of RFID viewed it favorably, almost 70 percent of consumers were "extremely concerned" that data collected via RFID could be used by a third party, that it would make them the target of advertisers or that they themselves could be tracked through their purchases. "Should the industry fail to educate consumers about RFID, that role will default to consumer-advocacy groups," warned consulting firm CapGemini.

The Sacramento-based California NOW (National Organization for Women) has signed on as an official supporter of S.B. 768 and is joining the ACLU, the Commission on the Status of Women and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence in lobbying the Legislature in favor of the bill.

"California NOW's primary concern about the use of RFIDs is the threat to women and their children's safety," said Jodi Hicks, California NOW's legislative director. "Women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence need to be protected by having their whereabouts concealed from their abuser. RFIDs are the dream tool of an abuser or stalker, and we must do what we can to keep that technology out of the hands of those criminals."

For Chavez, of RFID integrator RFID Ltd., it's a battle for consumers' trust. "You can't take it personally," he said, but "I do take offense to the fact that they're influencing consumers' opinions of anyone and everyone in the RFID industry as being secretive or Machiavellian in their efforts."

He wants Albrecht and McIntyre to agree to join his company's advisory board, participate in public debates and train to become "certified" in RFID. "If they wish to be credible in talking about RFID technology, they need to be certified." Chavez tempers his criticism, acknowledging that others in the industry have directed "very well-publicized slurs" at the Spychips authors.

Privacy advocates raise important concerns, he said. "I'm all for labeling, and the consumers should have the option to kill the tag at the point of sale." Most in the industry believe in some form of a code of ethics but ultimately want to police themselves.

RFID trade association AIM Global, which also published a rebuttal to "Spychips," calls the book a "great read" for "conspiracy buffs" and says it includes "a lot of conjecture, old news, unfounded assumptions, and a hodgepodge misrepresentation of the various types of RFID--even as the book admits the technology's limitations."

Mark Roberti, founder and editor of the RFID Journal, said RFID is a wonderful technology that is getting a bad rap by a vocal minority. "You can't see it--that's what creeps people out.

"The fact is, everywhere RFID has been introduced, people love it."

Roberti has written hundreds of articles about RFID and its applications, editorialized against the Spychips book and said its authors "consistently overstate the truth."

"They don't understand the fundamentals of business," Roberti said of the idea that collected data could become common knowledge. "Businesses never share information about their customers. The company is always going to do what will make it money."

That's only the beginning of the "misguided" and "pathetic" ideas that Roberti said pervade "Spychips." "The book is so stupid in the fact that it does not relate technology to reality. ... Wal-Mart cannot change the laws of physics."

"They're struggling to read tags on cases traveling through a dock door 10 feet wide at 5 miles an hour," Roberti said, and it's easy to disable or "jam" tags. Read ranges are only a few inches in most cases, and it will be years before RFID tags are cheap enough--5 cents, the industry hopes--to place on individual products.

And nowhere in the book, Roberti says, is there an example of a specific person whose privacy has been invaded.

"Every time you go into a store, video cameras are assuming you're guilty. Why is RFID suddenly the problem?" said Roberti, who is against tracking people by name and is disturbed that U.S. privacy laws are not as advanced as those in Europe. Still, he said, "these are not evil people out to screw all these consumers. These are good people who want to sell products."

"In my view, RFID gives the consumer all the power," he said. "Wal-Mart has no power. We choose to shop there. ... Vote with your wallet. If you don't want someone to put an RFID tag in a product, don't buy that product."

Albrecht, who authored a rebuttal to Roberti's rebuttal, said he misrepresents what "Spychips" is all about. It's not about how corporations and the government have invaded people's privacy. It's about how they plan to invade their privacy in the future.

"Part of what the book does is show industry vision," she said. "Before 1910, when electrical outlets were invented, if you had said, 'There will be a way to tap into a worldwide power grid, and [devices] will be every 10 feet in your house,' people would say, 'You're nuts,'" she said.

It's largely the "what if" thought progression that has RFID proponents so mad about "Spychips."

What if the "smart" medicine cabinet developed by Accenture didn't just warn people, by matching face-recognition software to FDA-mandated RFID tags on medicine bottles, that they were about to take the wrong medicine, but broadcast that information to their family members, doctor or the government? What if the government or insurance companies start using information gathered by RFID to deny people health coverage?

What if the same refrigerator that lets you know when you're out of cheese also radios the information to marketers, who in turn bombard you with unwanted advertisements?

What if police decide to use the passes carried by toll-bridge users to determine via RFID readers that a driver had gotten from Point A to Point B too quickly and issue speeding tickets?

What if you have your RFID-enabled passport in your pocket when you go to an anti-war rally, and government agents remotely scan it and put you in a database?

"That's the more dangerous, insidious side of RFID," said the EFF's Tien of the possibility of surreptitious government use of RFID. "The private sector and the government work hand in hand in many areas of surveillance. ... It's all one big blob a person has to worry about."

"Some people say, 'I don't care if people find out I wear size 8 Levi's jeans,'" Tien said. But what about more sensitive and personal possessions, such as a pregnancy home-test kit, or meds for bipolar disorder or HIV? "There are a lot of issues about your preferences and your beliefs," Tien said. "It's the same debate as the Patriot Act. Some people will say they have nothing to hide, and the government could find the same things out another way."

Tom, the CSUS professor, said that at the end of the day, most consumers don't really care how a technology works; they just think "it's neat that it works."

If they don't like a technology, or how it's being applied, "the power is still in the hands of the consumer. The consumer still has the power at the very end to rip off the tag."

"I don't see industry in general using RFID tags in a stealth manner," Tom said. Garfinkel said it would be a shame if RFID were dismissed completely because the industry is "incompetent" at addressing privacy concerns. He embraces many uses of the technology and especially sees ways it could be used to help blind people.

"The industry is acting very poorly." RFID manufacturers contradict themselves, he says, when they talk about how powerful their tags are and then tell consumers not to worry about them being read covertly, or from a distance beyond the recommended read range.

"Lots of times, things we think are not possible under the laws of physics actually are possible because it's an engineering problem, not a physics problem."

What it comes down to is whether you trust the government and big business to keep your privacy and other best interests at heart, he said.

"I think it's a mistake to simply assume that business would never do anything secret," Garfinkel said. "The government is already following people around. I could easily see us being in a world where this is pervasively deployed. A lot of personal info could be leaked."

Albrecht said CASPIAN's intent has never been to ban RFID, she said, but rather to make companies tell consumers when tags or readers are being used so they can make informed choices.

If consumers wait and hope for the best, it may be too late, said Tien, of the EFF. "Privacy violations are not like a lot of other kinds of violations. You don't see them right away," he said, drawing a comparison with identity theft.

"There's really no reason to wait until a disaster happens until you deal with it. You can do something now rather than wait for a crisis."

One Pill Makes You Better

The first thing was a loud buzzing in his ears, as though a swarm of bees was swirling around his head. Then the hallucinations kicked in. The patterns in the blanket tacked to the ceiling above him glowed vibrantly and then began transforming into the faces of members of his family, faces that turned themselves inside-out and back again. He saw his father finding him dead with a needle in his arm. He saw himself in a beautiful field of flowers. He saw Jesus standing outside the Earth, creating different races of men and placing them on different continents.

While Shawn's mind reeled through this visual cacophony, his body lay quietly in a darkened room in a house near Tijuana, Mexico, deep in the grip of a powerful psychedelic drug. The Sacramento house where he lived with his father was far, far away. Shawn (who asked that his real name not be printed) was in Tijuana because he was desperate. He was addicted to heroin and cocaine, a suffocating habit that had landed him in jail several times and had left him so wretched – even when he was out from behind bars – that he wanted to die.

At 22 years old, he was going through three grams each of heroin and coke every few days. "I had a needle in my arm every 20 minutes," he said. "I was desperate, completely miserable."

He supported himself by selling, out of his car, what he told customers were stolen laptop computers; after he pocketed their money and drove off, his victims would learn that they had just paid hundreds of dollars for a counterfeit computer box filled with junk.

Shawn had tried to quit drugs more than a dozen times, with the help of everything from Narcotics Anonymous to detox programs. Nothing worked. At the end of his rope, he found himself following a tip from a junkie friend, slipping over the border to try a treatment that is as much an urban myth as a scientifically proven medication – and is as illegal as crack in the United States.

The treatment is a dose of a powerful hallucinogen called ibogaine. It is derived from the roots of a shrub called Tabernanthe iboga, which grows in western Africa. Local tribespeople have used it as a peyote-like sacrament for generations. Since the 1960s, it has circulated on the margins of Western drug culture, sustained by its reputation as a potent healer. A single daylong trip on ibogaine, lore has it, can help break an addiction to heroin, cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes.

Now, interest in ibogaine seems to be approaching a kind of critical mass. The increasing number of anecdotal success stories has attracted the attention of serious researchers. Although there is no rock-solid proof, scientific consensus that this strange drug indeed may possess potent addiction-thwarting properties is increasing.

Meanwhile, regardless of what science says, faith is flourishing. A devoted community has grown up around ibogaine – a motley congregation of former junkies, envelope-pushing academics and drug-reform zealots helping to spread awareness and use of the drug. There reportedly are at least two underground activists in the United States who will provide it to seekers illegally. But taking ibogaine doesn't have to involve breaking laws – it's legal in many countries. As a result, clinics are popping up from the Caribbean to Pakistan, offering ibogaine treatment for anywhere from a few thousand dollars to well more than $10,000.

The clinic near Tijuana is, relatively speaking, among the most reputable. It was opened in 2001 by Martin Polanco, a Mexican doctor who was impressed with how ibogaine – obtained at an underground U.S. clinic – had helped one of his relatives beat a cocaine addiction. Polanco's facility, known as the Ibogaine Association, has administered more than 350 treatments and currently has 10 to 15 new patients a month, says program director Randy Hencken.

Hencken, a tall, thin 28-year-old with curly hair and little studs in each ear, was one of Polanco's first patients. He had dropped out of college at 21 to devote himself to cocaine and, eventually, heroin. Throughout the years, he tried everything from 12-step programs to methadone to get clean, but nothing worked. He discovered ibogaine on the Internet, made his way to Polanco's facility and returned with his addiction broken. He since has embraced the cause with a convert's zeal, taking a job as the association's main organizer.

Last summer, Hencken invited me to follow one of the association's patients through a full ibogaine treatment. I met Hencken shortly thereafter in a San Diego apartment that doubles as the association's U.S. office. The place fits naturally in the beachside slacker-student-surfer neighborhood. The front room is furnished with worn couches and a computer emblazoned with a Jane's Addiction sticker. A bike and surfboards hang on hooks in the kitchen.

Hencken, dressed in a black T-shirt and pants, with a thick wallet chain, hopped into an unmarked van and drove to a dingy airport motel. Waiting in the parking lot was Craig, a trim, compact man wearing loafers, khakis and a Nike T-shirt.

"I've got to admit this is a little weird," said Craig, a 50-year-old restaurant owner from Salt Lake City who flew in the night before. "I feel like we're doing a drug deal." And, in a sense, they were. Craig got into the van, and they rolled south.

Craig was highly motivated to undertake this bizarre journey. He was an alcoholic for years, with the smashed cars and nights in jail to show for it. He quit drinking 16 years ago and has stayed sober. But a few years ago, he was prescribed painkillers for a knee injury and discovered that he liked them. He began downing fistfuls of pills daily, scoring them from one of his employees. "At first it was recreational," he recalled. "But then you find yourself doing them just to get from point A to B, and you know it's a problem."

Last year, he checked himself into a rehab center and went cold turkey. "It was horrible," he said. "You hurt from your bones in. I couldn't sleep. I cried like a baby. I'd take hot baths all day and eat ibuprofen like candy." He stayed clean for six weeks and then fell off the wagon. "I can't stop myself. But I know I can't go down that road again like I did with alcohol," he said. "But when you're on opiates, it really hurts to stop." So, when his dealer, who had been scouring the Internet for unconventional ways to kick drugs, told Craig about the Ibogaine Association, he decided he had little to lose.

"I just need to get this stuff out of my system," he told me as we drove through Tijuana, "and I'm looking for an easier, softer way."

Ibogaine, as even its most ardent supporters say, is not a cure for drug dependence; however, it apparently can play a potent role as an addiction interrupter. The drug has two powerful addiction-fighting effects. The first is biochemical: It seems to act on serotonin and opiate systems in the brain, physically nullifying a person's craving for drugs and smoothing his or her withdrawal symptoms. That's a huge boon for those addicted to heroin and other opiates, many of whom shrink from the physical pain of detox.

"It has been proved to alleviate the pain and physical discomfort of drug withdrawal with animals," said Dr. Stanley Glick, a neuropharmacologist at Albany Medical Center in New York who has researched the drug for years. "And there are lots of reports of it doing the same with humans. You hear the same story a few thousand times, you've got to believe there's something there."

After a few weeks, this craving-blocking effect generally fades. But by then, users have been able to detox relatively painlessly, and then they have a month or more free of drug cravings in which to seek therapy, join a support group and do whatever it takes to stay clean.

"It was the easiest detox I've ever had," recalled Shawn. "It was the first time I had a window of time without my head screaming at me to get high."

Shawn stayed clean for eight months, but then he relapsed during a New Year's Eve bacchanal in Los Angeles and soon was back to his old habits. He wound up trying ibogaine again the next year.

"One dose of ibogaine is not a magic bullet," stressed Dr. Deborah Mash, a neurology professor at the University of Miami who has done the most extensive research on ibogaine's effects on human beings. "But it can be a powerful first step on the road to recovery."

The second effect is less tangible and more controversial: In many users, ibogaine induces hours of hallucinations of a staggering force and strangeness – though the patient appears to be simply sleeping. Many ibogaine users say they gained profound insights from this experience, which helps them to understand why they became addicts.

Shawn is one of them. "It touched me like nothing else," he told me, two years after his first experience. "It wasn't enjoyable, but it was powerful." Shawn had been brutally battered by the stepfather he lived with as a boy in Tacoma, Wash. The ibogaine brought some of those memories painfully back to him and helped him understand how much the trauma of those years had to do with his urge to escape into drugs.

But for some, the visions are harrowing, and the treatment a failure. "It's like acid times one million," writes an anonymous naysayer on one of the many Web sites devoted to ibogaine. "I saw God alright – I talked to him. And I was so sure it was real. But it wasn't. It was someone who messed with me and scared the daylights out of me."

This person's account says that others who took the treatment at the same time saw themselves being crucified or raped. "It didn't work for me, and it didn't work for anyone else that I personally met who took it," the writer concludes. (Hencken says this person was not treated at the Ibogaine Association.)

One thing everyone agrees on: Ibogaine is no fun. It's too emotionally unsettling, mentally exhausting and physically stressful to be any kind of a party drug. Its side effects can include nausea, vomiting, loss of coordination and a potentially dangerous reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. There have been several documented deaths in connection with the drug. But, because the ibogaine was not taken in a clinical setting, the cause of death was never firmly established. Some fatalities may have been caused by pre-existing heart conditions made lethal by ibogaine's effects.

Mash is confident that there are more that have gone unreported. "There are some pretty unethical people" giving clandestine treatments, she said. "They just leave patients for dead in hotel rooms."

"That's why ibogaine needs to be legal and available in safe settings," Hencken said. "It needs to be in the hands of someone who can judge your health, your dosage and provide a safe environment."

The Ibogaine Association requires clients to submit a medical history as well as undergo testing before treatment can begin. A doctor administers the drug. Still, the procedure seems remarkably casual.

From San Diego, Craig was brought to the association's treatment facility, a rented house on a well-kept residential street near Tijuana. Only the dining room, which has been converted into a medication-equipped office, and the oxygen tanks under the stairs indicate that it is a medical establishment, of sorts.

The doctor treating Craig was Francisco Canez, a calm, round-faced man who splits his time between the association and a hospital emergency room. Craig sat with his arms crossed, looking more than a tad nervous as Canez reviewed his file and calculated his ibogaine dosage. From a small jar, he shook out three gelatin capsules filled with white powder and handed them to Craig.

Craig looked speculatively at the first pill, which he was to take to make sure he wouldn't have an allergic reaction. "Well, I've put all kinds of things in my body," he said, shrugging. Down the hatch. Half an hour later, having evinced no untoward initial responses, he swallowed the other two pills.

Canez then took him into a bedroom – where sheets of Styrofoam covered the windows and a CD softly played rainforest sounds – and attached him to a heart monitor next to the bed. The monitor's graph fluttered peacefully as the ibogaine gradually pulled Craig away. After a while, he just lay there silently, engulfed in a hallucinogenic hurricane.

After several hours, the visions gradually started to subside. Craig sat up, nauseated and dizzy. "That was a wild ride," he muttered. Although he hadn't had a painkiller in several days, he found he didn't crave one.

He lay down again and dropped back into his head for another hour. Finally, he revived enough to be moved to another house, where he was to spend the next day recovering. He tottered out to the van with small, jittery steps.

Ibogaine's addiction-fighting potential was discovered only recently – and accidentally. It was sold as a stimulant in France during the middle decades of the last century, and an American psychologist and a psychiatrist dabbled with it in the 1950s and 1960s. It was so obscure it couldn't even be considered a curiosity.

But in 1962, Howard Lotsof, a 19-year-old New York student with a heroin habit and an appetite for other pharmacological kicks, scored some powder that he was told would give him a 36-hour trip. Lotsof and some of his junkie pals experimented with it and, to their astonishment, found that it knocked out their heroin cravings.

Mightily impressed, Lotsof tried to drum up street interest – and a little cash for himself in the process. It never caught on in a big way, but it did find a place in counterculture lore – and got banned by the federal government in 1970. It was memorably cited by journalist and psychedelic connoisseur Hunter S. Thompson, who speculated that "a bad ibogaine frenzy" was the likely explanation for Democrat Ed Muskie's oddly emotional behavior in the 1972 presidential campaign.

Ibogaine's legend grew as a constant trickle of adventurous addicts tried it. In the mid-1980s, Lotsof managed to patent ibogaine as an anti-addiction palliative, and he set up a company to try to bring it to market. An early series of treatments in the Netherlands looked promising, although there were a couple of ibogaine-related deaths elsewhere in Europe.

Undeterred, Lotsof continued his crusade. In the early 1990s, he and other activists persuaded a federal agency to cough up several million dollars for ibogaine research. He recruited Mash, and the two began working together. (They since have parted ways.) By 1993, Mash had won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to begin testing ibogaine on human subjects. But then one of Lotsof's informal patients in the Netherlands died. In 1995, the National Institute on Drug Abuse decided not to proceed to clinical studies.

"Committee members were not all that impressed with its efficacy, but the safety issue stopped them in their tracks," said Frank Vocci, a federal researcher who has followed ibogaine's progress. "What you have are a lot of interesting, colorful anecdotes. But the plural of anecdotes is not scientific data."

A number of researchers around the country, however, have become sufficiently intrigued to continue experimenting with animals. Dozens of articles have appeared in scientific journals, most of them reporting promising results that buttress the anecdotal evidence.

Mash is doing her own part to advance the cause. In 1996, she helped to launch an ibogaine clinic on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. During the next five years, she gathered data on more than 300 patients who sought treatment there – the largest body of serious clinical research on ibogaine ever collected.

Mash presented her findings at a medical conference last fall in San Francisco. Granted, her sample wasn't representative of America's drug users: Most were white men between 20 and 40 years old, the sort of addicts who can afford to spend several weeks and several thousand dollars detoxing in the Caribbean. Still, she declared that her research proves that ibogaine can be administered safely and does help break addictions. "We saw people with big methadone habits lose their cravings after just a single dose of ibogaine," she said. "One month later, both cocaine and opiate addicts reported cravings were significantly lower. And at one year, drug use was significantly down among testees."

At this point, perhaps the major obstacle to Ibogaine's mainstream acceptance is its scrofulous image. This isn't a medicine developed by white-coated scientists; its anti-addictive properties were discovered by a junkie, and some of its promoters are folks more likely to interest the attorney general than the surgeon general.

One of ibogaine's most energetic boosters is Marc Emery, founder of a clinic in Vancouver, Canada. Emery is a verbose, middle-aged man with bushy hair and corporate-casual clothes. You'd never guess that he heads the British Columbia Marijuana Party and is, by his reckoning, one of the world's largest sellers of pot seeds. It has been his personal mission to bring ibogaine to the masses since the drug helped his adopted son kick methadone and heroin.

Until this spring, Emery offered free treatment in the Iboga Therapy House, a clinic that consists of a plush one-bedroom apartment in a Vancouver high-rise. With his cash flow crimped by business and legal troubles (he just spent two months in a Saskatchewan jail for passing a joint at a pro-pot gathering), he has stopped funding the clinic, putting its program on hold, but he remains supportive. "It was a very worthwhile investment," he said. "The improvements I saw in our patients were significant and astonishing."

Still, Emery's enthusiasm is unlikely to change the minds of skeptics such as Dr. Herbert Kleber, head of the substance-abuse division at Columbia University's school of medicine. "I'm in favor of anything that works, but there needs to be proof that it does and that it doesn't endanger patients," he said. "I've been in this field 35 years, and I've seen a lot of magic bullets. They often turn out to be worse than the disease."

Getting that kind of proof requires controlled experiments on human subjects, which is what Mash is working toward. She has isolated a molecule called noribogaine, which is produced in the body as it metabolizes ibogaine and which she believes is the key agent that blocks drug cravings. She is trying to get FDA approval to start human testing. On a parallel track, Dr. Glick has synthesized a chemical cousin of ibogaine dubbed 18-MC, which he also hopes to market.

Both Mash and Glick think their ibogaine derivatives will give users the drug-blocking effect without the hallucinations – something both believe is necessary if the FDA is to approve their products.

But would eliminating ibogaine's psychedelic side diminish its effectiveness? No one knows. "For me, the ideal would be for people to take ibogaine in a controlled environment and use the experience as part of their psychotherapy," Mash said. "Then, slap a noribogaine patch on them."

Mash and Glick also face a more prosaic obstacle: money. Funding comprehensive clinical trials for a new drug is colossally expensive, and so far, neither has found anyone willing to pony up the full cost. In October, a Los Angeles philanthropist pledged to give Mash $250,000 to restart research at the University of Miami, but that's only a tiny fraction of what eventually will be necessary if ibogaine is ever to be brought to market.

"The pharmaceutical industry has never wanted much to do with addiction medicine," Glick said. "It's not very profitable, and it's bad public relations."

Although there are millions of people addicted to various substances in the United States, many of them don't want – or can't afford – treatment. Worse, from a bottom-line standpoint, an ibogaine-based treatment drug would be used only once – a feeble investment for companies accustomed to cash-cow refillable prescriptions.

And that leaves people like Shawn knocking on the doors of unregulated ibogaine clinics in a desperate search for something that will help defeat their addictions.

"All these clinics popping up all over the world – it's become almost a cult-like phenomenon," Glick said. "All the hype and politics around ibogaine just make my job harder. It means the scientific establishment and regulatory agencies take a dim view."

But the ranks of the believers keep growing. Six months after his ibogaine treatment, Craig says he's staying clean and feeling great.

Shawn had another brief relapse following his second ibogaine experiment, but he says he has been clean for a full year now. He's back living with his father, going to school and trying to get licensed as a real-estate agent. Despite his post-trip slips, he still credits ibogaine with helping him stay straight.

"What I really learned from ibogaine is that I have a choice," he said. "If you take advantage of that window it gives you, you can get clean. It has so much potential to help so many people. I just wish people would look past the psychedelic part and look at the value of it."

A Day at a Time In Recovery

The atmosphere is beginning to break down at the House of Joseph. At this small, church-based, men's recovery home on the outskirts of Marysville, Calif., the guys are losing patience with each other. They're squabbling about details, about housework and money, about unfairness in their responsibilities.

Life at the House of Joseph has always gone through cycles. The challenge lies in keeping things steady, and that's why Aquil Hafiyz, the director, has decided to keep everyone home tonight instead of attending church. The time has come to gather everyone in Freedom Hall and lay down a bit of the law, affirm some of the basic rules.

Aquil has spent the afternoon roaming the grounds, supervising the landscaping that's going on in the front and side yards. He's younger than a lot of the guys, but still he resembles an older man.

These past couple of months, the men have been keeping it positive, working well together. There's been a solid group running the car washes, heading out diligently after breakfast each day with a shopping cart loaded with buckets and soap and rags, hawking washes for donations through the warm afternoon. The men – about a dozen total, ranging from their mid-20s to late middle age – already have tilled up the yard's packed-dirt turf and seeded a new lawn, and today they planted a sapling, installed some decorative cinderblocks and gathered up the clutter in the side yard.

The house is a former rest home, with an extra-wide hallway and side entryway, and a wheelchair ramp leading up to the front deck. It shows the effects of age and neglect, and so it blends into the landscape of Olivehurst, a chronically downtrodden suburb on the south edge of Marysville. But on this day, the place is a little tidier, and the progress has infused the air with a sense of pride and boosted the cooperative spirit.

But those dark spots of disunity are lingering, and they'll only fester if left unaddressed. So, Aquil sends word around, and soon everyone is filtering into the place they call Freedom Hall, a former living room soaked in musty, old-house scent and doused in green-tinted light from aging skylights.

The guys slide into the two old church pews that line a table, open their Bibles to Ephesians and begin reading in turns, like they normally do. And, as he often does, Aquil soon interjects with a comment, adding perspective to the verses. But this time, he doesn't stop talking for about a half-hour.

"The reason we're having this meeting tonight is because we've got to get certain things back on track," he begins, in the snappy, down-beat rhythm that he always applies to weighty matters. "We're a family in this house. We are men, and we should treat one another like men! This is our community, and everybody has to learn how to help each other out – we're in too-close quarters with each other!"

He brings up incidents from days before, brings up Bible characters and Bible verses, his rhythm steady and lively, like that of an impassioned pulpit orator. Soon, it seems he's produced the desired effect, and he begins to wind down. The guys have begun responding, joking and laughing together, and Craig Anderson, a clean-cut, middle-aged man who arrived depressed and homeless from Sacramento two months ago, stands and offers an apology for losing his cool the previous day. There's hugging, and the guys rib each other a little and laugh some more. At least for now, Aquil has held things together.

He lingers outside afterward, in the evening sun along the side walkway. He's keeping track of the comings and goings; several guys are walking around the corner and down the street, heading for their drug and alcohol recovery group meetings. Technically, this is a breach of house rules. The program requires a "blackout" period for a resident's first 30 days, a time of confinement to the house and backyard, a time for thinking things over – for tilling the soil, as Aquil puts it, and the planting of a new seed.

There should be veteran residents or staff members escorting the guys when they leave the grounds, but Aquil is the house's only staff member, and he can only enforce so many rules. So, he overlooks many of them, all the while making sure the guys know that the rules still exist and why they exist: It's the surroundings, the neighborhood. It's because the House of Joseph sits in the middle of Olivehurst, just off the main strip. It's because most of the guys come from around here, a place that's saturated with the very things they're trying to push away.

For a while now, the community of Olivehurst has begun serving as a contrast for an upper-middle-class invasion showing up on the fringe of town. A few blocks south, vast tracts are being graded for new houses. A brand-new apartment complex sits separated from the aging, single-story homes across the street by a 10-foot wall, awaiting its share of Sacramento workers who will commute 90 minutes each day for the lower cost of living.

But here, at Olivehurst and Sixth avenues, neighborhood denizens forever crisscross town – some on foot, some on rickety bicycles and some in run-down jalopies looking as aged and faded as the buildings. People are conducting drug deals, discreet transactions that aren't too hard to spot from the front yard of the House of Joseph. Here in the middle of town, storefronts still sit empty and boarded, although some say Olivehurst Avenue is looking up these days.

It's a place that Nick Romano has haunted for years, alternately nursing and fighting a heroin addiction that has gripped him for most of his adult life. Nick is in his early 50s, but his soft, somewhat hesitant demeanor makes him seem younger. He's not small, at about 5 feet 10 inches, but his build is slight, and his gaze has a fragile quality – youthful and weathered at the same time.

He reminds Aquil about his medication, but Aquil demurs and tells him to attend his recovery meeting first; he can take it afterward. Aquil has been holding the medication, an addiction-treating pill, since Nick overdosed a week ago, having finally downed too many after suffering through the first few days of heroin withdrawal. It was an incident that stuck in Aquil's mind, one he brought up again during this evening's lecture. It's always unsettling when a resident suffers a setback, but there was something else that morning, a comment that was made, and it struck a nerve in Aquil.

It was mid-morning, well after Bible study, after the residents had done their morning chores. The usual handful of guys had stolen around the corner for a cigarette, breaking the house rule against tobacco, another rule that escapes enforcement these days. Nick had shuffled along with them, in his flip-flops and cutoff shorts. As he walked, rolling a cigarette, his movements began to slow. And, before long, he'd stopped moving altogether. His eyes had widened, and his gaze had receded into a hollow distance when fellow residents Craig and Steve caught him, propped him up and called his name a few times. They waited a minute or two and then stood him up, one on each arm, and began a slow, halting retreat back to the House of Joseph.

They lowered him into a wheeled desk chair and then rolled him into the nearest bedroom and eased him onto a bottom bunk. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and one of the paramedics, as he began writing on his clipboard, commented offhand: "Oh, yeah, we know Nick. We've been chasing him around town for the past few years!"

It rubbed Aquil like sandpaper, fired his motivation. Nick had shown up at the house a number of times in the past several years, staying for as long as a few days and as short as a few hours. This time, he'd been off heroin for five days – no small feat. But he'd come farther before, only to fail. All of this, taken together, caused Aquil to punch the air in front of him as he waited in the hallway, watching the medics work. "We are gonna beat this thing!" he exclaimed stubbornly, trying to keep his voice low.

Now, a week after the incident, Nick's gaze has become alert, showing more of his adult, weathered side. He's approaching the two-week mark, and he's thinking about the future. He talks with energy about enrolling at Yuba College, about learning a trade and earning a certificate, as other residents have done before. The guys keep up-to-date on Nick's progress, helping him count the days. The recovery program involves selecting a personal mentor, and Nick has told Craig that he's considering asking him the favor. The only trouble, he says, is that Craig has no history with drug addiction. Craig is a strong presence, a man with a certain resolve and motivation, but he came to the house for different reasons, so, realistically, he can't relate to Nick's journey.

Craig is 58 years old. His troubles started a year and eight months ago, when his wife passed away and he began heading emotionally downhill, the pieces of his life soon crumbling away. He was sleeping on the sidewalk outside a Sacramento homeless shelter last spring when a storm erupted overhead. After pondering his despair for a time, he offered up a desperate prayer, he says – and looked skyward to see a lone cloud drifting north, against the wind. That, Craig says, was an unmistakable sign from the Lord, saying, "Head north." And it wasn't long afterward that Craig encountered Aquil visiting the shelter, spreading word about the House of Joseph, a place where he could find the support he needed to start fresh, 45 minutes north up the highway.

This afternoon before the meeting, Craig lingered in the front yard after the others had gone in, mothering the new lawn, which is beginning to sprout around the large shade tree fronting the house. He seems to feed on the high spirits as much as he contributes to them, and he places high hopes on the House of Joseph. That's why he takes it hard when people start bickering over details. He winds up snapping at someone, like he did the previous day.

But now, after Aquil's speech, things seem better again.

The Apostle Michael Sterling lives about an hour away, in South Sacramento, so he doesn't show up at the house every day. When he does, he's the most imposing figure on the premises, a towering, bald, barrel-chested man constantly punctuating his phrases with some variation of "Hallelujah, praise God, name of Jesus!"

As a younger man, Sterling sold drugs in his native Los Angeles, and he eventually went to prison for three-and-a-half years. When he got out, he still had plenty of "juice" in his neighborhood – a strong street reputation, plenty of friends willing to set him up in business again. But Sterling, who was raised a Baptist, found Jesus again, and it was something much more profound, he says, than the "prison Jesus" that often grips inmates. He began acting on his new conviction, leading prisoners in prayer and Bible study.

"I was like Joseph, literally," he says, referring to the namesake of his two recovery homes, the one in Olivehurst and its counterpart in San Bernardino. (Joseph is the Bible figure who, in the book of Genesis, instills strength and hope in his fellow prisoners in Egypt's dungeons, later to become an elevated government figure.) Sterling has since become a Pentecostal minister, and he now serves as executive director of Kingdom of God Apostolic & Prophetic Ministries International, which runs churches and recovery homes around California and has operations in Nigeria, Kenya and India.

When he speaks of his hopes for the House of Joseph, Sterling describes the early years, when there was money for several staff members; when house rules were more rigid; and when the recovery rate among his residents, he estimates, was around 80 percent. For the past couple of years, it's been more like 40 percent, he says.

Sterling talks of pursuing funding through the federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program, but that requires resources as well, he says – namely, a person who can guide him and his staff through the process. He suspects funding may be impossible if the house doesn't meet certain living conditions, and there's a long list of needed improvements, but he estimates the cost at around $10,000. "I'd almost be better off going through the private sector," he says.

If Sterling had all he wanted, there would be a 6-foot wrought-iron fence surrounding the yard, with an electronic lock on the gate. There would be a chart on the wall, listing all the residents and their whereabouts throughout the day. There would be enough staff to keep the system running smoothly around the clock, including a resident nurse. As the house director, Aquil shouldn't have to regulate people's medication, Sterling says. He shouldn't have to cook dinner, which he sometimes does, and he shouldn't have to keep track of people's whereabouts throughout the day.

It's because of these limitations that Sterling accepts Aquil's lenient style, admitting it's probably the best approach for the time being. When Sterling visits every few days, he likes to bust Aquil's chops, point out things that need doing and put a little pressure on his employee. He chuckles about that. "Aquil can only do so much," he concedes.

A couple of weeks have gone by, and Craig's spirits are low, although he won't admit it. After spending the day washing cars, he's in the kitchen, browning beef and cooking noodles in pots that are too small for a dozen people. Craig is working alone, with an oven that looks like it's falling apart and pots that he's scraping with a spoon because someone didn't clean them very well.

Most of the positive atmosphere has disappeared. Nick has completely fallen off again; he left the house without telling anyone. The residents say he's shown up to visit since then, with a beer in hand and enough pills to stay high for some time. They say he's working an odd job somewhere in the neighborhood, but no one is quite sure of his whereabouts.

Once he left, other guys copped attitudes and stomped out, going back to their old ways – some temporarily and some permanently. Aquil says a few wanted to make a point, saying, "Hey, if he can come and go as he pleases, so can I!" They're snubbing the house rules, Aquil says, and not showing the respect they showed before.

It's all caused Aquil to change his perspective a bit, rethink his unconventional approach. His expectations may have lowered slightly, but he's still a long way from giving up on his philosophy.

A few days later, Craig is manning the car wash again, waiting for customers in the parking lot of a pizza parlor, across the river in Yuba City. It's nearing 5 o'clock, and he and Doug Galyardt are expecting someone to pick them up soon, to gather the buckets and towels and head home after another long day. Doug and Craig have come to share a trait, both refusing to let the house's atmosphere sour them.

Doug is a soft-spoken, weathered-looking man of 39 who came to the House of Joseph after serving jail time for domestic violence. It was a weakness for drugs and alcohol, he says, that got him to that point. And now that he's lost much of his life – like Craig, but for a whole different set of reasons – he's determined to leave bad influences behind, and he won't let any household squabbles sway him.

"I've got to give the Lord a chance," he says. "Those other guys, they're not worrying about the important things. They're worrying about the little dogs nipping at their ankles, and not thinking about the big dog about to bite their heads off."

The two continue waiting, reclining in their chairs, surrounded by the noisy rasp of late-afternoon traffic. A former resident pulls up, looking for Aquil, saying he has a personal score to settle. Doug and Craig answer politely, and the man drives off. Before long, a young man drives up in a dented sedan and calls out, "How much for a wash?"

"Whatever you want to donate," Doug replies, bending his thick moustache with a smile. The man smiles back and pulls up next to the island, and Doug and Craig, with their steady, understated, diligent energy, get to work on the final wash of the day.

Home Sweet Homeland

At age 19, Dale Maharidge took a month-long solo backpacking trip across Canyonlands desert in Utah and realized with a jolt that he was meant to become a writer. He forthwith moved to the town he considered most overflowing with untold stories: Sacramento, California. After living for three months out of his Datsun pickup, he got hired, in 1981, as a low-level cop reporter at The Sacramento Bee.

It was there, on assignment to cover breaking news – a trailer fire! – that Maharidge first was paired up with the photographer fated to be his professional collaborator for the next three decades. Michael Williamson, who didn't own a camera until age 18, somehow had managed to land a job in the newspaper's darkroom. The two rookie journalists met, in fact, while running side by side down the halls of the newspaper plant on their way to cover that first story together.

They haven't stopped running since.

For almost 10 years, the pair worked the paper's "poverty beat," focusing their words and photographs mainly on the stories of the dispossessed who lived along the river and hung out at local rail yards. (The term "homeless" was not yet in the vernacular; the pair was tracking the early signs of this new aspect of modern American life.) During the same period of time, they authored three books. One of them – And Their Children After Them – won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1990. Another – Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass – helped inspire Bruce Springsteen's album The Ghost of Tom Joad. The pair left Sacramento in 1991, but since then have proceeded basically to do the same work nationally that they had begun locally.

And this month, there's more.

As the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day 2004 – in its current state of distress over issues of war, terrorism and the economy – Maharidge and Williamson have a brand-new work, Homeland, in bookstores. It chronicles post-9/11 America. Like their other projects together, Homeland attempts to chart – through feet-on-the-streets journalism – the trends in a restless America, especially in aspects relating to poverty, race and working-class people.

But Homeland is different; it comes with portent. In fact, thousands of miles and hundreds of interviews later, Maharidge believes he saw signs of something genuinely new and disturbingly un-American erupting in the homeland after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"What I was seeing was a new nationalism," Maharidge said point-blank. "The flags that sprouted after 9/11 cover a wound that's been festering for decades."

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The Terminator Beats the Press

Last month, the governor of California visited a Sacramento Costco to collect signatures for a fall ballot initiative reforming worker's compensation. A half-hour before Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived, hundreds gathered around the gaping mouth of the warehouse store just north of downtown. The smell of hot dogs and pizza, wafting from the outdoor food court, drifted over the crowd.

Shoppers came and went, pushing clattering shopping carts past cops and protesters. But reporters were kept under tight control by the governor's staff. More than two dozen reporters, photographers and camera operators were corralled inside waist-high metal barricades. Any media types who wandered outside the barrier were herded back inside by administration officials and told they had to remain there.

"I already got kicked out," said one newspaper photographer, who had escaped the pen and been ordered back inside.

The scene was typical of recent appearances by the new governor, who has kept an unprecedented distance between himself and the press corps assigned to tell Californians what he's doing. Schwarzenegger relies on self-promotion skills learned from a lifetime in front of the cameras to use the press to his advantage and tell the story he wants told. Along with his new administration came levels of control never before seen in Sacramento, including a savvy press staff that functions less as a conduit for information than as a public-relations team that bases its communications strategy on how exposure or access will advance the governor's political goals, not how it informs the public.

The tight control sometimes includes restricting access to a single pool reporter who later shares notes and recordings with those kept out. The restrictions drive reporters nuts.

Sacramento Press Club co-chair Don Andrews, a radio reporter for Metro Networks, said pooled coverage makes it very difficult for journalists to do their jobs well. "Access is critical to the public's understanding of what's going on under the dome that they pay for," he said.

In some ways, the restricted access continues the celebrity strategy that Schwarzenegger used during the recall campaign, when he largely ignored political reporters and editorial boards in favor of the entertainment press, right-wing radio, softball TV interviews and high-profile photo ops designed to be cinematic, not substantive.

That's not to say Schwarzenegger hasn't been accessible at times to reporters. He has held several press conferences and given one-on-one interviews to some reporters. But Capitol reporters say he's less available to them than his predecessors were. And, at the same time, the governor is incredibly visible, often using the press corps as a kind of involuntary conduit for the administration's political message of the day.

That's what happened at Costco. Schwarzenegger wasn't coming to collect signatures any more than to save a buck on toilet paper. He went to get his chiseled mug on TV, and it worked. The coercive appearance amplified the message that if lawmakers didn't make a deal by the weekend, Schwarzenegger would go to the voters.

The seven TV cameras in front of the store would make sure people all over the state saw Schwarzenegger that evening and heard something about how he's working on workers'-comp reform. The interest his celebrity provides would advertise his agenda -- in this case, making the state more business-friendly, the administration's No. 1 economic goal.

Just before the governor arrived, photographers and TV crews were escorted just inside the front door and deposited behind another barricade, where they could shoot the governor's entrance. "This is the second time I've been in a corral at Costco," one TV reporter grumbled. "It doesn't matter what we say or do; they don't need us for anything."

Schwarzenegger arrived to a loud cheer, emerging from a giant black SUV. He strode into the warehouse looking unusually tan under the buzzing neon lights. Wearing a black jacket, gray slacks and an open-collar white dress shirt, he gave a thumbs-up to the TV cameras and flashed a huge grin.

As the governor beamed for the cameras, the reporters stuck in the press pen outside -- almost all of them regular Capitol reporters -- still had little information about the ongoing workers'-comp negotiations. In spite of the governor's campaign promises to bring transparency to state government, the workers'-comp deal had taken shape behind closed doors, in secret, with reporters and voters uninformed of key provisions that later would be rushed through the Legislature.

After he was inside for a couple of minutes, more cheers arose as the governor headed out to the food court in front of the warehouse store. Schwarzenegger pressed the flesh and then made his way to a microphone set up in front of the press pen.

Schwarzenegger spoke to the crowd for two minutes, thanked everyone and then walked off toward his motorcade without taking questions. As he passed the press pen, reporters yelled questions about worker's comp.

"How close are you?" someone asked.

Schwarzenegger turned and approached the barricades. He held up his thumb and forefinger, an inch apart, and gave an update. The pack surged forward, pressing against the metal barrier with microphones and mini-cassette recorders in outstretched arms. In the din of the scene, his answers were barely audible. Then he was gone, 15 minutes after he'd arrived.

A few days after taking office, Schwarzenegger gave a quick series of interviews to five Northern California TV stations. Each outlet got a total of about five minutes. "It was like a movie promotion," said one participant, political reporter Kevin Riggs of Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA.

A few weeks after his big premiere, Schwarzenegger spoke to reporters in a January appearance at the Sacramento Press Club and set the tone.

"When I built my movie career, it was the press that helped me," he said. "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the press." Then he went on to thank the news media for helping him promote the Terminator movies and his recall candidacy, as if everything had been one big promotional tour and the political reporters were his flacks. "I want to thank all of you for this great job that you have done and for helping me so much," Schwarzenegger said. He ended his remarks by half-jokingly telling reporters to put stories about his recovery bond on their front pages. "Don't let me down, now: Cover story."

Schwarzenegger then took questions, but it was one of only a few times he did so during the first months after his debut.

When the administration neared its 100th day, the governor still had not given one-on-one interviews to print reporters. An exception was Charlie LeDuff of The New York Times. Before and after the recall, LeDuff said he spent months pestering the Schwarzenegger team for access -- a workout, maybe a motorcycle ride. Finally, in February, LeDuff and a photographer accompanied Schwarzenegger and some Tinseltown pals on their usual Sunday-morning motorcycle ride into Malibu Canyon. There were no conditions, and no press handlers were present. "If you can get him by himself, he's more forthcoming than his people are," LeDuff said. In the article, LeDuff noted that "the governor was making sure the public saw him" by letting a reporter tag along.

A few days after LeDuff's piece ran, the governor's press staff dedicated the weekly briefing to the upcoming 100-day milestone. Communications Director Rob Stutzman took the podium to spin reporters writing about the governor's maiden voyage. Stutzman went down a list of 10 campaign promises, making his case on each point. When he took questions, one reporter wanted to know when the press would get some face time with the governor. "The governor has had limited access, other than with those who ride Harleys," the reporter said.

"The governor is accessible," Stutzman shot back.

The room erupted in laughter and groans.

"He's not accessible to us," yelled someone in back.

The governor had taken questions 41 times, Stutzman said. Another reporter pointed out that most of those instances were on the friendly turf of conservative talk-radio airwaves.

Generally, the administration doesn't get high marks from the news media for making the governor accessible.

"I think he's the least accessible of all the governors I've covered," said Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who has covered seven since starting here as a United Press International reporter in 1961. For a few years, Skelton also covered Ronald Reagan in the White House, where access came easier. "He was more accessible as president than this guy is as governor," Skelton said.

In December, the press office instructed reporters to e-mail any interview requests for the governor, the first lady or senior administration officials. Some reporters are still waiting for an answer.

Radio reporters feel especially left out. Though the governor has made plenty of time for numerous conservative talk-radio hosts, he hasn't given a one-on-one interview to radio reporters.

That irks John Myers, bureau chief for public radio stations KQED in San Francisco and KQEI in Sacramento. His interview requests went nowhere. "It's a problem for the public as a whole," said Myers, who also files reports for National Public Radio and for the California Report, which airs on 23 public radio stations around the state. "This governor can and should be more accessible to reporters who are trying to present his ideas to the people."

Capital Public Radio reporter Mike Montgomery didn't hear back about his interview request, either. "The problem is Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't make himself available to people at my level," he said.

SN&R had the same experience. The press office never responded to a request for an interview with either the governor or someone from the administration. Months later, when SN&R first called Press Secretary Margita Thompson for this article, it took four calls and two office visits to hear back -- not from her, but rather from her deputy, Ashley Snee.

Most of the more than 30 Capitol-press-corps members interviewed for this article faulted the lack of access. Some complained that the accessibility problems extended beyond the governor's office and the governor himself.

"They're not really willing to put reporters in touch with people in key positions in the administration to do really substantive policy interviews," said Paul Feist, statehouse editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Others were more charitable. "We have no major complaints," said 25-year Capitol reporter Ed Mendel, of The San Diego Union-Tribune. Sacramento Bee Political Editor Amy Chance said there's more demand for access to the governor, not necessarily less access. There are always tensions, she said, but this administration seems "willing to work with us."

Still, as folks like Dennis Miller, Tim Russert and Jay Leno chatted up the governor during the first months of the administration, it struck some reporters as a continuation of the celebrity campaign strategy that Schwarzenegger used to win the recall election: Play for the cameras and keep the political press at arm's length.

At the end of March, the governor did sit for a round of interviews with 11 daily newspapers and three wire services. Big papers -- like the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Sacramento Bee -- got 20 or 30 minutes alone on the patio with the governor, and some smaller papers -- such as The Bakersfield Californian and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside -- had group interviews.

A couple of days later, Skelton asked the press office if Schwarzenegger would run for re-election. Instead of an unreturned phone call, Skelton got an unexpected invitation to interview the governor on the patio, in the smoking tent.

Stutzman pointed to the round of interviews to counter any claims that the governor hides behind a public-relations team. "We just gave interviews to every print bureau, and I had many of those reporters get up, thank the governor and say this was something Gray Davis never did," he said.

The patio chats didn't do much to ease concerns about Schwarzenegger's accessibility. In spite of that brief window of access, this administration represents a big change from its predecessors.

The celebrity campaign makes perfect sense, in a way, because it makes the print press less relevant and instead plays to TV, which is easier to tailor to the administration's visual needs.

"Schwarzenegger has figured out how to leverage his celebrity toward his policy and political goals," said Dan Schnur, a top Republican political consultant who worked as communications director for former Governor Pete Wilson and for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid. Schnur founded the Sacramento consulting firm Command Focus with longtime friend Stutzman, who quit the firm for the administration.

Schwarzenegger and his advisers know he'll be covered regardless of how much access is granted, Schnur said, and "if people tune in to hear the bodybuilding stories and Conan jokes, he understands how to move their attention toward his administration's goals."

An example was the governor's State of the State address, which included a quotable line on the snoozy topic of governmental reorganization. "I don't want to move boxes around; I want to blow them up," Schwarzenegger declared.

"They knew," Schnur said, "that every [TV] news director on the planet was going to have to use that language. The idea of an action hero blowing things up was just too irresistible. But they also knew that in order for the newscasts to use that language, they'd have to spend a minute or two explaining what he was talking about."

San Francisco-based Democratic communications consultant Chris Lehane, who spun the Clinton White House through scandals, worked as Al Gore's campaign press secretary and tried to save Davis' image during the energy crisis, said Schwarzenegger has earned good grades so far for his handling of things in part because of the administration's skill at controlling his message. One example was how the governor used the cameras that day at Costco. "They've made a conscious decision to go above and beyond the print guys and the folks who do the day in, day out reporting in Sacramento, and use a strategy which they employed in the recall ... to communicate to a larger audience via local television."

Schnur and Lehane both see Schwarzenegger's dominance of the media landscape as closer to a president than a governor.

"Because of his unique status," Schnur said, "he has the visibility and the communications potential of a presidential candidate, so, in essence, you're bringing presidential-style media strategy to the state level for the first time."

In fact, Schwarzenegger's new press secretary, Thompson, once did the same job at the White House for Lynne Cheney. Thompson also worked as California press secretary for Bush/Cheney in 2000 and as press secretary for Dick Riordan's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. After Riordan's loss, Thompson became the Washington, D.C.-based political producer for CNN's Larry King Live. And, during the recall, she had to work on setting up an interview with Schwarzenegger (she succeeded).

Stutzman, Thompson's boss, is the brains behind the governor's media strategy. He previously worked as communications director for then-Attorney General Dan Lungren and the California Republican Party, and is well regarded among Capitol press corps members, many of whom have known him for years. They see him as affable, unflappable and always plugged in. "He's the best I've seen in three administrations," Bill Ainsworth, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, said of Stutzman.

Stutzman filters decisions with one question: Does it communicate what this governor is doing for California?

"It's about utility," Stutzman said. "The reporters themselves are not an end. They are a means to an end. And the end is communicating the governor's message. They're going to report on us no matter what."

Stutzman rejects the idea that the governor isn't accessible. "You'll never find a reporter who said they have enough access," he said. He said the governor makes appearances all over the state and that the way to evaluate his accessibility is to look at how available he is to the media in general, not just the Capitol press corps. "I can't help it if they don't go to Los Angeles or San Francisco," Stutzman said.

Ultimately, Stutzman plays the biggest role in deciding who gets access to the governor: "I make the recommendations and talk it over with [Schwarzenegger] to make sure that we're distributing access in a way that optimizes his ability to communicate his message."

That kind of strategy represents an evolution from past administrations.

Bill Stall observed the change from both sides of the pressroom podium. He started at the Associated Press' Sacramento bureau shortly before Reagan took office in 1966. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press in Cheyenne, Wyo., covering a governor with no press staff. "You'd talk to the chief of staff, and if he wasn't there, you'd just go in and talk to the governor," Stall remembered.

Reagan brought in a more sophisticated press operation, Stall said, and he held press conferences every Tuesday while the Legislature was in session. Though the original actor-governor later earned a reputation for making goofs, he performed well in front of reporters. Stall tried to catch Reagan off guard but couldn't. "He handled himself very well," Stall said. "He knew his stuff."

Reagan's successor, Jerry Brown, hired Stall as press secretary. Brown didn't like press conferences much, but he was easy to catch around the Capitol or at a bar he frequented across the street. When reporters approached Stall for a comment, Stall passed them on to Brown's top aide. "Most of the time, I'd just have them talk to Gray Davis, who was the chief of staff. And people used to joke that Gray really wanted to be press secretary. He liked talking to the press; that was fun."

After Brown left, Stall said, the trend with subsequent governors was to hire public-relations people, with more experience framing the issues, to run the press office, as opposed to journalists. Former Governors George Deukmejian and Wilson aren't remembered for their warm relations with the Capitol press corps, but Davis, in spite of his background as a chatty staffer, ran what many reporters saw then as the low point for access. Davis' performance as governor led to critical coverage, which, in turn, brought his approval ratings to Nixonian lows. Everything went downhill from there, and Davis suddenly found himself watching Schwarzenegger's inauguration.

Stall is now an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, which hired him away from Brown. As Davis imploded last year, Stall embarked on a project. With so much attention suddenly focused on state government, he traced how Sacramento became so dysfunctional, and he recommended fixes for California's complex problems in a series of editorials that ran for two months starting the day after the recall vote. Last month, the series earned a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

A day before the months-long negotiations over worker's comp finally ended with a vote in both houses of the Legislature, Schwarzenegger held a press conference in the Capitol pressroom. Dozens of reporters, hungry for news about the agreement, filed in and took their seats. But instead of talking about the complex debate over workers' comp, Schwarzenegger arrived there that day with Danny DeVito, Clint Eastwood and a few other Hollywood big shots to announce their appointment to the California Film Commission. Before taking questions, Schwarzenegger instructed reporters: "Keep it to the entertainment business."

It was the kind of thing that angers TV reporter John Lobertini of San Francisco's KPIX, who is frustrated that the governor blows off questions that aren't on the designated topic of the day. "He'll just tell you that we're not here to talk about that today. What you get is what he's pitching to the crowd," Lobertini said. "We see him, but we don't hear from him."

Davis might have been relatively inaccessible, but reporters knew how to catch him and get him on the record about an issue. KCRA's Riggs said Davis was easy to catch for a few questions after appearances at the Capitol. "Can't do that with Schwarzenegger. They really keep us roped off and pretty far away," he said. "If they control access, then they can control the message better."

Often, the governor doesn't take questions following his appearances. Typical of this was an April groundbreaking for a Genentech facility in Vacaville. The governor showed up, spoke for a few minutes and vanished without taking questions. Reporters who showed up to cover him were left only with his prepared remarks.

Another way of keeping reporters roped off is to use pool coverage. In some cases, such as a helicopter ride, it's impossible to let 20 newshounds tag along. But Capitol reporters complain that access to the governor is now restricted even inside the Capitol.

Andrews, of the Sacramento Press Club, surveyed more than 30 members on the administration's pool policy. "Nobody liked it," he said.

Los Angeles Times reporter Carl Ingram, president of the Capitol Correspondents Association, has heard the same complaints.

Andrews, Ingram and other reporters brought the complaints to Thompson in December. They received no assurances that things would improve. "There's no real leverage you have with the governor," Ingram acknowledged. "We can't boycott him."

In April, Ingram again wrote to Capitol reporters, seeking more input on pools to take to the administration. "Because of the increasing use of pools for coverage of the governor when he is in public, it seems that we must again express our concern and remind the governor's staff of our continued opposition," Ingram, a four-decade veteran of the Capitol press corps, wrote.

Myers, of KQED radio, said the unspoken rule for pool reporters is that you're supposed to observe, not question. "It's not a journalistic exchange," Myers said. "It's more being a passive observer, and observation is part of journalism, but so, too, is a critical examination of what's going on, and you're not really able to do that in a pool environment." And with a pool situation, the majority can't even observe in person.

For those who do catch Schwarzenegger, he will talk -- and do a good job of it. Schwarzenegger is straightforward in a way most politicians aren't, but he's also impulsive in a way that leads to gaffes. On Meet the Press, he told Russert that former Governor Wilson raised taxes after riots and natural disasters plagued the state, which wasn't true. He also suggested that legalizing gay marriage could provoke riots and deaths.

Yet, flubs aside, Schwarzenegger is his own best spokesman. San Jose Mercury News Sacramento Bureau Chief Mark Gladstone said Schwarzenegger can be funny and self-deprecating while parrying questions. California State University, Sacramento, political communications Professor Barbara O'Connor said, "Even the most cynical of reporters find him disarming."

In mid-April, when lawmakers took a week off, one of the biggest political stories of the week came out of Hawaii, where Schwarzenegger was vacationing with his family. The governor's office wouldn't reveal Schwarzenegger's whereabouts, but Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Nicholas headed to Hawaii anyway. After initially heading to the wrong island, Nicholas learned (he won't say how) that Schwarzenegger was at the Four Seasons on Maui. Nicholas got to the island, checked in at the hotel, went to the lobby and bumped into Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver. They looked stunned, Nicholas said, but "they were gracious," and Schwarzenegger agreed to talk the next day. Nicholas met Schwarzenegger on the hotel patio in the morning. No press aides accompanied Schwarzenegger, just Shriver, a longtime network-television reporter. They spent a half-hour talking about different topics, including the Legislature, which Schwarzenegger said should be cut back to part-time status because lawmakers introduce "strange bills." The offhand remark made national headlines. Sources familiar with the situation said the governor's handlers were irate.

The irony about the lack of access to the governor is that it's paired with increased demand from news organizations for stories about state government, or the governor himself.

Television coverage has changed significantly, though not as much as some predicted at the time of Schwarzenegger's made-for-television electoral triumph, when it was assumed that stations would splurge for constant Capitol coverage. But TV stations are paying more attention to state government than they have since the last out-of-town news bureaus closed two decades ago.

Lobertini, for example, is a new, full-time Sacramento reporter for San Francisco CBS station KPIX. ABC stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno jointly hired a new Sacramento reporter, Nannette Miranda, whose stories air on all three outlets. NBC stations in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area hired a new full-time field producer, Jim Jacobs, who works with various reporters assigned to Sacramento.

Newspapers are changing, too. Reporters and editors cite increased demand -- or interest, anyway -- from newsroom higher-ups. At the same time, outposts maintained by the biggest dailies aren't really adding new writers. Knight Ridder, which owns San Jose's Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and two other California papers, brought a new editor to its Sacramento bureau.

Though newspapers still drive coverage in other media formats, especially television, the pencil press may not be as important as it used to be in a made-for-TV administration.

"Everything is timing and staging," said one veteran Capitol scribe. "He's running a Hollywood-style theatrical-visual governorship. From the day he was sworn in, it's all been imagery."

Twenty-four hours after trotting out DeVito and Eastwood, Schwarzenegger was back in the pressroom, this time taking questions about the workers'-comp bill that had landed on his desk that day.

He wore a tan suit and burgundy tie that went well with the blue curtains behind him. Senior administration staff lined the wall to the side, observing the 14 TV cameras, 40 reporters and four photographers who showed up to cover the announcement, which would be the latest in a series of huge victories for the rookie governor. Schwarzenegger was calm and smooth, talking slowly. Reporters pressed him to justify why the agreement took shape in secret and got committee approval in the middle of the night after he'd campaigned on open government. Schwarzenegger blamed deadlines.

Hypocrisy aside, the administration still had a big win.

And no matter how much they'd been kept in the dark during the process, the members of the Capitol press corps scribbling in their notebooks would put the news on the front page, just where Schwarzenegger wanted it.

Jeff Kearns writes for Sacramento News & Review.


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