FPR: Methland, the book you should read this year

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.

Methland

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.”

{Read it all}

  • Hotspur

    I think that one of the most under-reported stories of the last decade is how meth has become the super-drug of the A-type set. It's far cheaper than cocaine and shockingly easy to acquire.

    "Under-reported"? Yup. Two good reasons for that. I was present at the Nashville newspaper when the state governor called up our top editors and begged us not to run an expose series on the drug a few years back. The reason: authorities did not want the folks who haven't tried the stuff yet to figure out that the high is three times better (I've been told), lasts all day long and can be made on a farm. This was back in the days of TennCare and the state had enough addicts on it's hands back then. Just wait until we get nationalized health care…

    (continues in next comment)

  • Hotspur

    Reason 2: Care to guess how many media types manage to do their jobs 24/7 with no sleep? Or stockbrokers, sales types, corporate CEO's, politicians and more? The story isn't reported because folks don't want to hear it. It's going to take a huge John Belushi high-profile death and investigation to even begin to lead the charge with the next generation to shun this stuff. I don't know if Michael Jackson counts…

    (continues in next comment)

  • Hotspur

    I personally saw two print journalists working while hooked on the stuff (and won awards; I stayed sober and didn't…that's life), two top editors and one under-editor fired for doing it (and getting caught), one top editor encouraged to move back to California with spouse and four kids when it became clear that he fueled himself on the stuff and was about to get exposed…

    We're living in the 1970's again. Hopefully today's kids will learn the lessons that us 40- somethings took away from that experience.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JodyH Jody+

    Hotspur,

    Thanks for the comments. I'm not surprised to hear that meth is so prevalent, or that people want to protect it. I think the brief history of meth from "Salton Sea" is pretty instructive… It's just very sad when one considers the effect its having on communities and families. Especially as the economy prompts more people to make a quick buck and "meth cook" starts to look enticing…

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