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The next time you're in the bookstore, look for Methland: the Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding.

We all know about drug-epidemic books. They're like the assemblies we suffered through in high school, full of urban legends about evil pushers and weak-willed addicts who suffer horrible fates. You can skip them and rent Reefer Madness instead.

Nick Reding didn't go there. Instead, Methland is one of those rare dot-connecting books. To Reding, the meth epidemic is all about what's wrong with our small towns -- he focuses on Oelwin, Iowa -- and with the national political system that keeps us from fixing our problems. It's not just about smugglers and dealers and users. It's about Big Pharma, agribusiness, illegal immigration, and squeezing the working class out of the American dream.

[More on the flip.]

[TNTYitBS is a semi-regular feature of The Weekly Sift]

Mayberry's Drug Problem. A year or two ago, when a cousin died prematurely of no apparent cause, my father speculated that he had showed signs of meth addiction. At the time, one implication of that went right past me: When did my Dad learn the signs of meth addiction? How could there be a drug problem that this 80-something farmer knew more about than I did?

Meth is different from our other drug epidemics, in ways that are hard to discuss honestly in public. Mainstream America has always pictured drug problems as centered in segments of the population that are ... well ... expendable. Sure, there might be drugs in the local high school, but that's just spill-over from the black ghetto or from new immigrants that we didn't want here anyway. The problem always really belonged to those people -- how dare they bring their filth into our communities?

We can't tell that story about meth. The center of the meth epidemic is small-town white America, the kind of people who show up at Sarah Palin rallies and think of themselves as the "real" Americans. A modern-day Sheriff Andy would be tracking down meth labs rather than watching Otis sleep it off in jail. If we brought The Waltons up to date, some neighbor would have blown up his own house cooking meth.

Millions Americans are like me: We don't live in a Mayberry, but we think of ourselves as from there. Somewhere in the back of our minds is a grandmother's house that is over the river and through the woods. It's beyond our imagination that the people who live in that house now might be meth addicts.

Because it was so incongruous, so injurious to our national mythology, the meth problem flew under the radar for a long time. At first Reding thought it was his strange luck to keep running into meth stories while he was researching something else. After he became convinced that meth was a widespread serious problem, he tried to get big-city editors interested. He couldn't. A Mayberry-centered drug problem didn't make any sense, so it couldn't be happening.

What meth does. You can't understand the epidemic without appreciating the biology. The human body has a reward system. When you do something you know is good, chemicals get released in your brain. That's what feelings like pride, satisfaction, and general well-being come down to: neuro-chemicals.

Meth tricks that system. Take meth, and suddenly you have the brain chemistry of someone who just scored the winning touchdown or aced the SATs. You feel like you can do anything, but you don't have to, because everything is fine. You don't even need to eat or drink or sleep.

Short-term, meth is performance-enhancing: You can ignore obstacles and do more stuff better. Long-term, meth screws up the system it tricks. If you quit using the drug, suddenly you can't generate feelings of pride, satisfaction, or general well-being no matter what you do. Even if you score the winning touchdown in reality -- it doesn't matter; it doesn't feel like anything without meth.

Working class values. Our culture idealizes hard work. Pulling an all-nighter, going pedal-to-the-metal to get the big project done -- those are heroic stories, the kind we like to tell about ourselves. A drug that helps you do those things seems almost virtuous.

It's one thing for a drug to be associated with sloth, like heroin. But it's wholly another when a formerly legal and accepted narcotic exists in one-to-one ratio with the defining ideal of American culture.

In my mind, the fictional character who fits the meth profile most perfectly is a hero: Batman. Businessman by day, crime-fighter by night -- when does he sleep? Or eat or drink? He shrugs off wounds and concussions. But he's been at this a little too long, and his worldview is sliding down the rabbit-hole into darkness and paranoia.

One of the Oelwin residents Reding follows throughout the book is Roland Jarvis. He started taking meth in the 1980s so that he could work occasional back-to-back shifts at Iowa Ham, the local meat-packing plant. At the time, the factory paid $18 an hour and meth was cheap by comparison. Then Iowa Ham got bought by Gillette and then by Tyson and then eventually closed. Wages got slashed to $6.50 an hour with no benefits, and then the jobs went away altogether.

How do working-class people deal with a drop in income? They work harder. They take second and third jobs. They sleep less. If a drug will help you do that -- what a godsend! And if your place in the legitimate economy goes away, there's an illegitimate economy that needs hard-working people too. You can start cooking meth yourself and selling it to your friends so that they can work three jobs.

Once you start cooking your own meth, you can be high all the time -- including when you're cooking meth. One cold winter night, Jarvis was cooking when had a paranoid delusion that the cops were about to raid. He dumped all his chemicals down the same drain, and they blew up. Impervious to pain, Jarvis thought he could fight the fire, but he wound up burning off his hands and his nose. When the EMTs eventually found him running around frantically, near-naked in the snow, they were afraid to touch him. They hoped that he would just fall over and die, because they didn't know what to do with him. But he lived.

Immigration. You know who really wants a hard, dangerous $6.50-an-hour job with no benefits? An illegal immigrant. The meat-packing plants of Middle America have lots of them. Illegals acquire somebody else's driver's license and social security number. The employer doesn't look at it too hard, and everybody's happy.

The reason the illegal immigration problem is so hard to solve is that many powerful people don't want to solve it. Employers all over the country depend on illegal immigrants not just to take bad jobs, but to keep legal workers in their place. Don't want to take a 2/3rds pay cut? Good luck in your next job. Want to protect yourself by organizing a union? Labor laws don't apply to illegals.You can't organize workers that the management could have arrested and deported whenever it wants.

Everybody knows how you stop illegal immigration. You enforce the law on the people who have something to lose: the employers. Every day, some bar gets shut down because it accepts fake IDs too easily. You could shut down factories the same way. When the jobs dry up, the immigrants will stop coming.

But if you want to put on a show of fighting illegal immigration without actually doing anything about it, you build a fence at the border. Think about it: If there is opportunity on one side of a border and none on the other, people will cross. Not even the Berlin Wall kept everybody in. How is our fence going to keep people out? Arrest them, send them back -- even shoot them down like the Soviets did -- and more will come.

[T]alk of increased border technology seems only to work in tandem with -- and as a cynical addendum to -- an utter lack of interest in removing the real impetus to walk across the desert: Cargill-Excel in Ottumwa is always hiring.

Where meth comes from. Two places: Home cookers, who we'll discuss in a minute, and Mexico. The vast majority of illegal Mexican immigrants have no connection to the drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs in narc jargon). But once there's an outside-the-law highway to bring illegals to factories in Iowa, drug traffickers can use it too.

The Mexican DTOs harness the same flood of cheap labor as the American factory-owners and use it to bring meth right to the working-class communities. Being poor, desperate, and easily replaced, the illegals don't take a big cut. And when drug-smuggling illegals try to avoid the notice of police and other authorities, they look just like all the other illegals.

the same American immigration policy that provides a low-wage workforce ideal for the food industry is what keeps the DTOs in business.  ... the interests of the DTOs are aligned with the likes of Cargill and ADM.

Home cooking.  To make your own meth you need some farm-related chemicals, plus either ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine. Since the 80s, the DEA has tried to get Congress to approve strict regulations on ephedrine. They wanted pharmaceutical companies to rigorously account for all the ephedrine they imported and what they did with it. The Mercks and Pfizers didn't want to, and they pay lobbyists to keep Congress from making them do things they don't want to do. It took a long time for the DEA to get effective regulation.

Then the cookers switched to pseudo-ephedrine, which you can find in over-the-counter decongestants. There are ways to make equally effective decongestants with similar molecules that can't be turned into meth, but again, the drug companies didn't want to. They allowed Congress to regulate pure powdered pseudo-ephedrine, but not pills. So cookers bought enough decongestants to dry up Niagra, ground them into powder, and didn't miss a beat.

Eventually, meth started making headlines. When it appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 2005, Congress had to do something, so it passed the Combat Meth Act. At first blush, it appeared to give the DEA everything it wanted: Limits on how much pseudo-ephedrine a customer could buy, plus a record-keeping network that you couldn't circumvent by going from one store to the next.

But the final draft was influenced by another group of lobbyists: the National Association of Retail Chain Stores (NARCS, believe it or not). The Walgreens and CVSs didn't want to keep those records, or tell customers they couldn't buy something they wanted. So they pressured Congress to let the states enforce the law, and then they pressured the states not to enforce it. Reding quotes Tony Loya of the DEA:

"We pass a law, and then we basically tell these huge companies that they're not responsible for complying. It's stunning."

Agribusiness vs. agrarian culture. Every drug problem eventually comes down to the users. Why do they do it? Each user's story is unique, but there are also larger forces at work: The fewer opportunities people have to experience satisfaction in their real lives, the more tempting drug-induced satisfaction is.

The biggest difference between the Mayberry of Sheriff Andy and the Oelwin of Roland Jarvis is that the food business has been taken over by giant corporations. Farming towns and mining towns once represented the two extremes of small-town life. In farming towns, multiple independent producers and small businesses traded with each other. The economies were robust, the power structures democratic. By contrast, mining towns were company towns. Wages were whatever the company paid, prices whatever the company store charged.

Historically, farming communities were models of rural economic health, and mining communities like those in the Appalachians were an indicator of a crippling system of centralization. Today, farming and mining communities are becoming indistinguishable says [sociologist William] Heffernan.

More and more land is either owned or contracted by Cargill or some other giant. Increasingly, farmers grow what the company tells them to grow and sell for what the company is willing to pay. Increasingly, local businesses are chain stores, managed by people who weren't born nearby and hope to be promoted to somewhere far away. Relationships that used to be permanent are now temporary. Money that used to rattle around in the local economy now zooms off to corporate headquarters.

The small town of myth, the one that exemplified true American values, wasn't just small. It had a particular kind of culture -- a culture of people, not corporations. That culture is a thing of the past.

In my telling meth has always been less an agent of change and more of a symptom of it. The end of a way of life is the story; the drug is what signaled to the rest of the nation that the end had come.

Originally posted to Pericles on Wed Jan 20, 2010 at 12:53 PM PST.

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