Why Small-Town America Is Drowning in Drugs
Want to get the latest on America's drug & rehab culture? Sign up for The Fix's newsletter here.
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.
Deeney: In Oelwein you observed the hopelessness that comes in the wake of the collapse of industry and the middle class, and how it's linked to crystal meth trafficking and addiction. Over the past year, the Occupy Wall Street movement has appeared, dramatizing the enormous inequality of wealth in this country. Methland highlighted this development several years before it became a political issue. Have you given any more thought to how the chipping of the wealth upward may impact communities and drug problems?
Reding: The economic decline, which seems so recent, has actually been building in the Midwest and most of the country for nearly 40 years. When there are fewer and fewer people who benefit from the wealth that exists, and growing numbers of people are losing their jobs, their houses and their sense of middle-class security, you have what economists call a death spiral.
The recession also sucks revenue out of the stream, so not only do towns lose jobs, they also lose the related businesses—the café, the car shop, whatever—that benefit from a strong economic environment. You also lose social services, which is no small matter. The number of cops arresting meth makers and dealers decreases, and so does the number of social workers and drug counselors who deal with the meth addicts.
This was the dynamic that played out in Oelwein and then, tragically, went national. But the economic crisis has reached the point that the question isn’t who’s the bad guy and why did this happen, but what do we do about it?
Deeney: In Methland you describe labor conditions at the local poultry factories, where people work under crazy conditions pulling incredibly long shifts, wearing giant chain-metal suits in sub-freezing temperatures. You show how these conditions helped foster the use of crystal meth. And not only the use. Compared to the local poultry factories, the prospect of selling meth can look pretty attractive, even with all of its legal and ethical risks.
Reding: The argument I make in the book is very simple: The harder it is for people to make money honestly, the easier it will be for an increasingly large portion to chose to make it dishonestly.
Deeney: The same problems are happening in the inner city, of course, where one of the very few ways to make a lot of money is by selling drugs. Unfortunately, it's a career path that usually leads to prison or the grave before the big score.
Reding: When people lose 66% of their paychecks overnight at a local meat-packing factory because cheap immigrant labor from Mexico is available in substantial numbers, the shock waves that result are not just local and immediate—they quickly spread out in time and space. It takes a long time for people to figure out how to overcome that kind of a cataclysmic shock to their system, and during that time they have to find a way to survive. They have daily needs to meet, so they may start selling drugs. Meth is the easiest drug to sell because you can make it yourself and do it pretty cheaply.
Deeney: How did Oelwein get its meth problem under control?
Reding: Basically, the mayor, the police chief and many members of the community got together and said, "Our number-one problem is not methamphetamine but the fact that our economy is in tatters." In order to start turning that around, they recognized that they had to lure companies that will pump money back into the system—but in turn, one of the biggest obstacles was being known far and wide as a meth town.So in that context, they dealt with the only part of the problem that they had the authority and power to control, which was the small-time manufacturer.
Oelwein cleaned up its own back yard. They put a lot of law enforcement focus into it, and at one point they were busting two or three meth labs a week—in a town of 6,000 people! Since then, they’ve been able to add more than 500 cops—one for every eight or ten people, which is huge for a small town. But the drug-cartel part of the supply problem is too overpowering—nobody’s going to get a handle on that.
Deeney: How would you rate the federal response to the meth epidemic?
Reding: Ever since Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 [which regulates mail order and chemical companies selling precursor chemicals], the federal government has done nothing at all. In fact, it has never done anything very effective to combat meth, and the state governments have actually done even worse. In fact, taken as a whole, the response has in many ways made the business easier—at least the business of producing and selling it.
Deeney: How about the growing popularity of bath salts—the synthetic version of methamphetamine. Bath salts may be even more toxic than the real thing. Have they been taken up out there?
Reding: I don’t know, to be honest. But I can think of a funny analogy: This bullet is more deadly than that bullet, but when either one hits you in your head, they will kill you.
Deeney: Are you working on a new book?
Reding: Yes, it’s kind of a follow-up to Methland, about what the Midwest will look like in 50 years. I’m taking the long perspective because, as I said, I learned while doing Methland that the meth problem was really 40 years in the making—at first slow, then very fast.
The new book is called Heartland and is set in seven towns that I think are indicative of each region and where the whole middle of the United States is heading in this century.
Deeney: One of the great questions about street drug culture is why meth never took hold in the big urban centers of the East Coast. Even as the drug plowed chaos across the Midwest in the 2000s, it barely reached North Philly or the South Bronx. There are a couple theories who: The black and Latino drug crews, who have a stranglehold on the city’s drug corners, may be trying to prevent new drug they don't have a monopoly on from entering the marketplace; or maybe the media-forged stigma of meth as a hillbilly drug for poor rural whites made it seem alien to inner-city addicts. There's still time for meth to take hold, of course. Where do you see the meth problem in 50 years?
Reding: You know, I haven’t focused on meth so much yet because I’m working on the large trends of economic and cultural decline.
But one thing I can’t turn away from—it’s kind of like a car accident—is that the pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists now have carte blanche and play an even greater role in how legislation is written.
Every time a state or federal legislator attempts to introduce a bill that would restrict the over-the-counter sale of cold drugs, the pharma lobbyists come in and just tear the legislation apart. So you can still buy over-the-counter cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine and make crystal meth in your bathtub.