Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Methland: Book Review

Cooking crystal in the heart of the Heartland.

It’s summer, and I’ve been catching up on my reading. In an earlier post, I reviewed Joshua Lyon’s memoir of prescription drug addiction, Pill Head. This time, we travel to the opposite end of the spectrum and take a look at Methland, Nick Reding’s journalistic account of crystal meth addiction in the small farming community of Oelwein, Iowa.

This is a tale not far from my heart or home. I was born in Iowa and lived there until I was 21. A few years ago, the small Iowa town where my parents live was rocked by a series of revelations about a local lawyer’s ties to a major methedrine operation. Money had flowed through my parent’s small town in ways never seen before.

Also a few years ago, a Chippewa Indian was bound to a chair in the woods, tortured, and finally murdered in a dispute with meth dealers over some missing money. This happened about 30 miles from my home in rural Minnesota. It happened about an hour’s drive from the birthplace of Bob Dylan. It happened in a place where such things just don’t happen.

In a bleak nutshell, Reding lays out how it went down: During the lifetime of the average Baby Boomer, the amphetamine picture has evolved from the classic long-haul trucker’s Benzedrine and Dexedrine to the tweaker’s bathtub crank and crystal meth. “Not only in Oelwein, but all across Iowa, meth had become one of the leading growth sectors of the economy. No legal industry could, like meth, claim 1,000 percent increases in production and sales in the four years between 1998 and 2002, a period in which corn prices remained flat and beef prices actually fell.” In 2004, law enforcement officials busted a total of 1,370 methamphetamine labs in Iowa.

We learn about Jarvis, an Oelwein meth cook who became a local legend by staying awake on speed for 28 days, or, as Reding puts it, “an entire lunar cycle.” We hear about two-year old Buck, Iowa’s most famous meth baby, whose hair, when tested at the behest of the state Department of Human Services, recorded the highest cell follicle traces of speed ever found in an Iowa child (“At least 7,000 kids were living every day in homes that produce five pounds of toxic waste, which is often just thrown in the kitchen trash, for each pound of usable methamphetamine”). And there is the local doctor, forced to deal with meth addicts while battling his own alcohol and nicotine addictions. The doctor refers to the town’s many bars as “unsupervised outpatient stress-reduction clinics that serve cheap over-the-counter medications with lots of side effects.”

The local prosecuting attorney, we learn, has turned to Kant for solace. “So you can put a tweaker in prison,” he tells the author, “and the whole time he’s in there, he’s thinking of only one thing: how he’s going to get high the day he’s out. He’s not even thinking about it, actually. He’s like, rewired to KNOW that everything in life is about the drug. So you say, ‘What good does prison do?’”

The switch from ephedrine to pseudoephedrine as a main ingredient—an artful end run around loophole-ridden legislation—was the “blockbuster moment in the modern history of the meth epidemic,” Reding writes. “This, really, is the genius of the meth business. Cocaine and heroin are linked to illegal crops—coca and poppies respectively. Meth on the other hand is linked in a one-to-one ratio with fighting the common cold.” Moreover, half of the world’s pseudoephedrine supply is manufactured in China, far from the effective reach of U.S. law enforcement.

Not all of Iowa’s meth is homemade. California is the link between Iowa meth and the Drug War. A DEA officer tells Reding: “Our success with Medellin and Cali essentially set the Mexicans up in business, at a time when they were already cash-rich thanks to the budding meth trade in Southern California.”

The connection between Iowa meth, immigration problems, and the food industry is a bit subtler. Agribusiness consolidation in food packaging and processing—particularly meat packing--led to the demand for cheaper labor, which lead to an influx of south-of-the-border immigrants, legal and illegal, to many of Iowa’s small towns. “The real impetus to walk across the desert: Cargill-Excel in Ottumwa is always hiring,” Reding notes. Narcotics and poverty, says the author, mutually reinforce one another.


DuWayne Brayton said...

It always seems to shock people, when I explain where meth is usually made. I think people tend to think about meth labs as an urban phenom, when the reality is that very little meth is produced outside of rural areas.

There were a lot of meth producers who set up trailers in the woods, in Allegan county (about half way between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, MI). I think it was 98' when the MI state police, in conjunction with the Allegan and Kalamazoo county sheriffs departments busted 26 such labs in two weeks - every one of them more than thirty miles from the nearest (reasonable) municipality.

The problem with meth, is that it is too damned easy to make - and profitable. Back before ephadrine was outlawed, apparently some meth cookers were growing their own ephedra because it was safer than buying pseudoephedrine in the necessary quantities. I can't imagine making it illegal has stopped them.

Anonymous said...

I'm always disappointed at the ignorance of people when it comes to the darker side of life, as if they'll ignore it it'll go away.

I found you through the Blog Carnival.

Dirk Hanson said...

Excellent. I'm pleased that there actually is a book review carnival, and also pleased to have been one of the selections.

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