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Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding

August 25, 2010

If you’ve been listening to the mainstream media and government for the past twenty years, you might be tempted to think that meth was, like cocaine in the 1980s, a drug that came into fashion, enjoyed about ten years as the American drug of choice, then just as quickly disappeared. Meth might call to mind images of white trash, mid-western tweakers blowing up their trailer parks as they tried to mix up a batch of crank in their bathtubs. As is usually the case, the story isn’t quite as simple or neat as the media likes to portray it. Nor, as Nick Reding contends, is it over.

For Reding, who spent four years digging the dirt out from under America’s fingernails, following the multifarious threads of the meth story, the first major insight came from a doctor in the small Iowa town of Oelwein, population approximately 6000. Reding had been approaching meth as a crime story—an exposé of the drug and the criminal element that thrived on it. The doctor completely changed his perception of meth when he called it a “sociocultural cancer.” Reding makes the point that we are a psychological culture, not a sociological one. That is, Americans tend to believe that people do things like get hooked on meth because there’s something screwy about how they think, not something screwy with society in general. But in this book, Reding makes a convincing case that the meth problem isn’t about a few whacked-out criminals. It’s at one time a personal disease, a societal disease, and a symptom of a whole host of other issues woven tightly into the American fabric. It is, as several people point out in the book, a truly American drug.

Methamphetamine is a psychoactive stimulant. It increases alertness, concentration, energy, dulls the pain centers, can create a sense of euphoria, increase the libido, and sometimes lead to hallucinations. As described in Methland by someone with first-hand knowledge, it’s like putting all the neurons in your brain into a shot glass and shooting them–everything you have fires simultaneously.

Meth was originally synthesized by a Japanese scientist in 1893, crystal meth by another Japanese scientist in 1919. Because of its stimulating effects, Hitler ordered that it be given to German soldiers during WWII, and there are stories of entire platoons bogged down in heavy snow, managing to press on and fight thanks to meth. Hitler himself is said to have been a meth user, and many speculate that his mental devolution might be partly because of a meth addiction. But meth’s most natural fit is in post-war, industrialized America. In the 1950s, it was prescribed for a laughable list of ailments—everything from narcolepsy to alcoholism to obesity. But it found its best use as a stimulant for factory workers and other manual laborers. Because its effects are long-lasting (6-8 hours compared to the 20-minute highs of other narcotic stimulants), and because it focused rather than clouded the mind, workers found that they could increase their performance with a little hit of meth at the beginning of their shift. They could live up to the legendary American work ethic.

As with many drug epidemics, the prevalence of the drug is inextricably linked with socioeconomic and psychological factors in the host population. With Meth, it was the decline of small-town American life, a result of changes in the food and farming industries, globalism, and immigration. As small farms were bought up by larger mega corporations, and food producers looked to cut costs by consolidating and hiring cheaper and cheaper labor, many of the agricultural jobs in small-town, rural America dried up. Those manufacturing jobs that were available often went to immigrant labor, mostly Mexicans. As many previously successful Americans lost their footing, meth became both a coping mechanism and, as its popularity grew, a potential source of income. Unlike other drugs that are difficult to manufacture or require dealings with hardcore traffickers, meth could be produced in “mom and pop” labs (i.e. bathtubs), relatively easily. And that’s where it came from at first.

But, as there was money to be made, it was only a matter of time before the producers began to organize, first through biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels, then through entrepreneurial types, like Lori Arnold (actor Tom Arnold’s sister). Arnold could be considered the queen of meth, the first to build a true network and help the drug reach hundreds of new communities across the country. She dealt with the biker gangs at first and smartly started businesses in her town to launder her money. She had built the first true meth empire, before she was finally arrested and sent to prison. On her release, nine years later, she went back to it again, only to find that the industry had been transformed. The drug itself was produced differently, more cheaply. But a truly sinister element had entered the landscape—the Mexican drug cartels.

There is a story early in the book of local methhead and dealer, Roland Jarvis. High one night, Jarvis hallucinates that there are police helicopters circling his house. He pours the entire contents of his meth lab down a drain in his basement. Then, satisfied that he has destroyed the evidence, he lights a cigarette. The fumes seeping from his drain ignite and his house explodes. When the police arrive, Jarvis is in his front yard, running about madly, most of his skin melted off of his body, begging them to shoot him. That’s the old meth game.

The new game, is this: A small-town police officer receives a call from a man with a Mexican accent. The man tells him to stop poking around such and such. He then tells the officer that if he does not stop, the man will kidnap his wife and children and kill them all. To let the police officer know that he’s not joking, the man recounts the daily schedule of the wife and children. This is small-town America. The police officer knows and loves his community. He grew up there. And in this town, he knows, things like this are not supposed to happen. But thanks to meth, they sometimes do.

Throw on top of this convoluted mess the pharmaceutical industry’s strong lobbying effort against many of the proposed reforms to curb the meth epidemic—laws placing a limit on the amount of cold medicine (which can be used to synthesize meth) a person can buy at one time, or making available to law enforcement agencies sales records, or including a mechanism in the records of pharmacies to kill suspicious sales.

Reding reaches at times, like when he tries to draw a comparison between the Mexican drug cartels and the pharmaceutical companies. And he tends to wander off onto personal tangents about his subjects, or poetic waxings about the geography of the farmland, all which feel a little superfluous. But all in all, Methland is a captivating, sobering portrait of an American heartland that has transformed from the idyllic small towns of Mellencamp songs to a place with a darkness in the corners and behind the walls.

In the end, though, there is hope. Return to Oelwein, the small Iowa town. There is progress being made there, where they’re combating meth by rebuilding the community. A small group of dedicated citizens is giving the town a new face, a new center, new roads and streetlights. The strategy is not to fight meth, but to fight the conditions in which it thrives. If they can build a strong, economically stable community with signs of a bright future, they’re hoping that will push the meth out.

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