Methamphetamines are a scourge on America. Before I moved to Tennessee, I heard about an increasing number of meth-related deaths (often heart attacks) in Western North Carolina, where I grew up. The first counties I lived in when I moved to Tennessee were meccas of meth production.
Meth, like most addictive drugs, plays upon particular weaknesses. Meth, however, seems particularly suited as a drug for the “common man.” A drug that helps you work longer hours, feel strong–like superman–and helps you forget the meals you haven’t eaten or been able to afford. Well, it’s too much for many people in poor communities, rural and urban, to pass up. This book is definitely on my reading list.
Claremont, CA. They call it the “Superman Syndrome.” People who use methamphetamine often believe that they are capable of doing impossible things. Like flying. Or walking through walls. Or earning a living as a meatpacker in the era of agribusiness.
Nick Reding’s Methland (Bloomsbury, $25) made a number of “Best Books of 2009” lists, but I want to make sure it does not get consigned to the Decade That Was. It is one of the best pieces of book-length journalism that I have read in years, and if you haven’t read it already it should be your must-read book of 2010.
Methland starts out as the tale of one small town – Oelwein, Iowa – so ravaged by small-time methamphetamine production that its officials ban bicycling on Main Street. (Meth makers were riding through downtown with chemical-filled soda bottles strapped to their bikes; the motion helps to “cook” the drug.) Everyone is in a state of collapse: the people who are addicted to the drug, of course, but also the people – the mayor, the prosecutor, the doctor, the policemen – who are trying to fight it.
It sounds like an ABC Afterschool Special for the literary set – drugs are bad! see what they can do to you/us/Iowans! – but as Reding gets further into his story, the story gets much more complicated.
What Methland is really about is the many connections, subtle and apparent, among methamphetamine, immigration policy, and the mega-consolidated industries that we call Big Pharma and Big Agriculture. If the denizens of Oelwein were finding it almost impossible to combat the scourge of meth use, it was because structures and forces well beyond the scale of the town were effectively conspiring to spread it.
Reding’s critique of Big Agriculture – those same folks who chastised the First Lady for growing her own vegetables – is in particular worth the price of admission.
In Oelwein he gives us a sad example of what the introduction of agribusiness can do to employment in a farming community: In 1992, the local Iowa Ham plant was bought by Gilette. Within a day, Gilette dismantled the union and wages fell from $18 to $6.20 an hour. Gilette then sold the plant to Iowa Beef Products, and in 2001 Iowa Beef Products sold the plant to Tyson. With each sale, people were fired. In 2006, Tyson closed the plant for good. (Also with each sale, more and more workers turned to meth, hoping that it would allow them to stay awake for enough shifts at a time that they would be able to earn a decent wage. As Reding notes, meth has always been the drug “associated with hard work.”)
But Reding also describes the extent to which Big Ag has fought for the ability to hire illegal immigrants – as many as 25 percent of the agricultural jobs in the United States are performed by illegal immigrants – which among many other effects has made it harder to police cross-border drug trade. Although the powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations employ only a “miniscule percentage of the illegal immigrants in this country,” Reding observes, “that fractional number is harder still to police within an ever-expanding multitude of people that is overwhelmingly law abiding.”