Methamphetamine is a most pernicious concoction and, according to journalist Nick Reding, many rustic locales in the U.S. are awash in it. In fact, illicit drug abuse is a greater problem in rural than in urban America. A leading authority on addiction, Dr. Stanley Koob, says that methamphetamine is "way up there with the worst drugs on the planet." After reading Reding's "Methland," one is inclined to agree.
The drug was first synthesized in 1898. A technique was developed in 1919 that made mass production possible. By 1939 it was being prescribed as a treatment for a multitude of ailments. That same year the U.S. government sponsored reports suggesting meth's serious downsides. "Nonetheless, Japanese, American, British, and German soldiers were all given methamphetamine pills to stay awake, to stay focused, and to perform under the extreme duress of war."
In May of 2005 Reding began his investigation. The prosaic town of Oelwein, Iowa, provides much of the book's focus and is a template for myriad points of small-town America that once inspired images limned by Norman Rockwell. The contemporary drug-addled canvas rendered by Reding has more in common with Heironymus Bosch, or filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.
A farming community of hard-working folk, Oelwein has been hit head-on by the seismic shifts wrought by globalization. Voracious demands of corporate agriculture have gobbled up family farms, forced the shutdown of traditional businesses, eradicated unions along with viable wages in extant factories and coerced many with deep roots in their bucolic communities to depart for employment opportunities far from the rolling fields of the Corn Belt. In the course of these enormous changes, methamphetamine came knocking. To this day it is a most persistent and problematic presence.
Longtime residents are stunned by the pace of economic luxation(1) and the profound social disruption wrought by pervasive methamphetamine use. States Reding: "As I drove around Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, California, Georgia, and Alabama that summer and fall, there was a genuine sense of shock and fear in the towns I visited. People were confused by the thought that, somehow, just down the street or on the other side of town, a drug that could be made in the sink was making people do crazy things."
Roland Jarvis is a poster child for what can go wrong when one dabbles too long in the malefic wasteland of meth. "By the time I met him," writes Reding, "he'd had four heart attacks. He couldn't sleep and rarely had an appetite. Almost all of his teeth were gone, and those that remained were black and decaying." Jarvis once had a wife and family. Early encounters with meth made him feel great and enabled him to work double shifts at his lousy, laborious low-wage job at a meat processing plant. But meth's inchoate seduction turns quickly into addiction and obsession.
Jarvis was soon cooking his own batches of meth, using and distributing it. One night in the ghoulish throes of hallucinatory paranoia, Jarvis accidentally ignited the ingredients he had been using to make meth. The resulting conflagration transmogrified the horribly burned Jarvis into a hideous gargoyle of his former self. His nose was burned off along with the fingers of his hands. Yet he still manages to manipulate the utensils of meth use and remains ever the hapless addict.
High school dropout Lori Arnold of Ottumwa, Iowa, happens to be the sister of actor Tom Arnold who was once married to comedienne Roseanne Barr. While still in her teens, Lori learned of the monetary gain that can come from pushing drugs. During her first experience with meth, Lori says "that she had never felt so good in all her life." She went into the meth business and made its use widespread. Twice she amassed great wealth and was twice busted. Presently Lori is serving her second prison term in a federal slammer.
Not everyone in this story is caught in the stranglehold of meth addiction, but all are affected personally and professionally by meth: the embattled mayor who is trying valiantly to revitalize the town and ensure a future for Oelwein; the tough assistant prosecutor who prefers to avoid crossing paths on the street with anyone he has had to send to jail; and there is the dedicated town doctor who plays rock guitar and comes to grips with his alcoholism.
One shocking revelation in Reding's book is the extent to which the corporate pharmaceutical lobby has stymied efforts to obtain more stringent controls over the global flow of chemicals that go into the production of meth. He tells us that Drug Enforcement Administration official Gene Haislip proposed, in the mid-80s, "a federal law allowing DEA to monitor all ephedrine imports into the United States." Ephedrine is a common nasal decongestant. It can also be converted into meth. Haislip came under significant political "pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike not to raise the ire of pharmaceutical lobbyists, whose job, in part, is to comb through legislative bills looking for anything that could potentially upset their clients' sales." Thus Haislip's legislation was "drastically altered" and allowed "for the drug to be imported in pill form with no federal regulations whatsoever."
Reding makes it clear that "the global drug-trafficking business is by nature disposed to operate outside the bounds of law, politics, and traditional economics. ... One might say that the makers and distributors of narcotics function as a disconnected state, which nonetheless exerts tremendous influence within the borders and cultures of nations without regard to whether they're functioning or disconnected -- globalized or marginalized."
Which just serves to underscore Reding's thesis: don't ever mess with meth.