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Why Small-Town America Is Drowning in Drugs

A look at how the collapse of industry, poor labor conditions and the anxiety of economic decline facilitated mass drug use in one small town.

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In his best-selling—and uncannily prophetic—2009 book,  Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, author Nick Reding compared crystal meth to a “sociocultural cancer.” The easy-to-make stimulant can spread with the speed and destructiveness of a disease, but curiously, it can take many years to take hold, like a cell mutation triggered by decades of bad decisions. The subject of Reding's book was a struggling town in Northern Iowa called Oelwein, home to a population of 6,415. A once-wholesome community, Oelwein had fallen on hard times during the past decade, when the collapse of its industries—including many family-run farms—threatened its citizens livelihoods as well as their way of life. In classic post-traumatic stress mode, Oelwein fell victim to the crank epidemic, becoming a midwestern focal point for speed dealers.

Reding spent years reporting and writing Methland, which struck a chord in a nation experiencing a painful recession. He pointed out how economic problems had spurred towns like Oelwein to become unlikely centers of the drug trade. A sizable percentage of the town's citizens ended up becoming addicted to meth or pills. Others were engaged in manufacturing or transporting illegal drugs.

To mark the recent paperback release of his book,  Fix columnist Jeff Deeney talked to Reding about the current state of Oelwein and similar towns across America. Deeney works as a drug counselor in inner-city Philadelphia, where he regularly witnesses what life is like for the dealers and addicts who remain invisible to most of us. Like Reding, he has witnessed first-hand the toll that America's declining economy has taken on the underclass, who have increasingly come to view drugs not just as an escape but also as a rare avenue of opportunity. The two writers talked recently. 

Jeff Deeney: Have you been back to Oelwein since the book was first released? 

Nick Reding: Yes. Several times. The paperback version of my book has a new afterwards about my first visit back, when I appeared at a town hall meeting at which a lot of local people got a chance to vent their spleen at me. There had been a big uproar after Methland was published because many residents felt that I had maligned their town, sensationalizing it, painting things blacker than they were. I got death threats and all kinds of negative stuff. So we all needed to take a few hours to clear the air. It was not a particularly great experience, as you can imagine, but at least the death threats stopped. 

Deeney: How have things changed there in terms of the meth problem and the local economy, the two main subjects of your book?

Reding: Both have gotten better—against all odds—given the collapse of the financial markets and the continuing recession. For some reason Oelwein has bucked the national trend. They’ve also moved their meth problem in the right direction. The down side is that all the problems that were plaguing hat town have moved across the street and down the road—the same poverty, crime, drug addiction, and at the same order of magnitude.

Deeney: Methland tells the story of the meth epidemic through its effect on several townspeople, including some who were dealers and addicts. What's happened to them since the book came out?

Reding: Some of them are doing quite well. I’m still in touch with  Lori Arnold, who is Tom Arnold’s sister and the biggest meth dealer in the history of the Midwest. She went to prison twice for manufacturing and trafficking. She’s now out of prison, married, lives in Arizona, and as far as I know she’s clean and doing fine. There’s a guy named Major in Independence, Iowa, who rode in a bike gang. When I checked in with him last year, he'd been clean for about three and a half years. So that’s all good news.