Better Living Through Chemistry

What the rural Midwest’s meth epidemic does, and doesn’t, say about the global economy.

In an early scene in Nick Redings Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, a former meatpacker turned small-time methamphetamine cook in Oelwein, Iowa, named Roland Jarvis, inspired by a paranoid hallucination involving black helicopters, pours the hazardous chemicals comprising his home meth lab down the drain and then lights a cigarette, inadvertently blowing up his house and melting off most of his face. When the local police sergeanta high school classmate of Jarvissarrives on the scene, Jarvis begs him to shoot him. No onethe cops, the paramedics, Jarvis himselfquite knows what to do. None of them has really been here before.

This, in a nutshell, is what scared Americans about methamphetamine when it began to seep into the periphery of the national consciousness, building into a full-blown panic by the mid-2000s. The drug itself, a powerful stimulant, is unpleasant enough, but as Reding observes, “[i]n truth, all drug epidemics are only in part about the drugs.” What allowed meth to capture the public imagination so fully was the way in which it attacked the stories that Americans told themselves about the primordial decency of the heartland. Aside from its ease of manufactureyou can make meth out of readily available industrial and pharmaceutical products, enabling a twenty-first-century variant on the moonshiners of earlier generations such as Jarvisthe drugs most novel aspect was its clientele: the same predominantly white small-town residents who had watched the urban depredations of crack cocaine from afar and told themselves that they werent that kind of people. “Were in Iowa, for Gods sake,” a former Oelwein high school principal, explaining his decision to request police patrols of his school, tells Reding. “We dont do that.” In mainstream Americas Rockwellian imagination, police officers in towns like Oelwein were supposed to be stopping high school kids from making out in cars on prom night. In the meth age they suddenly needed bulletproof vests and hazmat training.

An August 2005 Newsweek cover story proclaimed meth to be “Americas Most Dangerous Drug,” which is highly debatablethere are gaping holes in the statistics cited by both the alarmists and the skeptics. As Methlands title suggests, Reding, a magazine writer, tends toward the former. His account of meths rise in the rural Midwest does not skimp on the grisly details; he paints a noir-ish picture of the region in which DEA agents set up meetings with drug informants in abandoned county airports, and vultures look on hungrily as detectives exhume the bodies of murder victims hastily stashed under semi trailers.

But Redings ultimate aim is more subtle than that: he wants to situate the meth phenomenon as part and parcel of the broader economic and social forces that transformed the rural Midwest, in often wrenching ways, in the late twentieth century. The drugs Middle American evolution, he argues, was a basically rational product of a global economy that in many respects has not been much more forgiving to rural Americas residents than the drug trade. “[M]eth has always been less an agent of change and more of a symptom of it,” he writes. “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.”

Methland consists of two loosely braided narratives, one wide angled and the other tightly focused. The first is an account of the twenty-year rise of methamphetamine in the rural Midwest, a story that actually begins some time earlier: in the decades following World War II, when the region played host to a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity. Thanks to advances in pesticides, fertilizers, and bioengineering, heartland exports boomed, and farmers in the Midwest eager to sell in expanding global markets began borrowing against what seemed like a limitless future. But when commodity prices fell in the early 80s, states like Iowa and Nebraska found themselves in deep financial trouble, and a cascade of farm foreclosures ensued. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture corporations like Monsanto and Cargill, which had grown enormous off the spoils of the Green Revolution, were rapidly gathering under their corporate umbrellas as many links of the production and distribution processtrucking companies, grocery stores, and other once-independent enterprisesas they could. By the mid-80s, once-robust regional rural economies were reduced to a patchwork of company towns, little different on paper from the corrosive resource-extraction economies of Appalachias coal-mining country.

It was around this time that a nineteen-year-old named Lori Kaye Arnold did her first two lines of methamphetamine, on the kitchen table of her cabin outside of Ottumwa, Iowa. Meth was not a new drug; it had first been synthesized by a Japanese chemist nearly a century earlier. It had only recently fallen from favor as a legal prescription narcotic, and had previously been employed by long-haul truckers to keep them from wrecking their rigs on the Interstate, advertised in womens magazines to weary housewives to increase their general perkiness, and prescribed to American GIs, as well as most of their allies and enemies, during World War II. As the legal market for meth had dwindled, however, a burgeoning illegal trade had emerged, built on a small coterie of professional suppliers in Southern California and a network of motorcycle gangs that distributed the drug elsewhere. This was how Arnold, the wife of a member of the Grim Reapers biker gangand the sister, as it happens, of comedian Tom Arnoldgot ahold of it. But it was her own innovations to this system in the late 80s that transformed meth into a rural midwestern phenomenon. After first setting up Ottumwa as the premier heartland distribution hub for Californian meth, Arnold decided to borrow a page from Monsanto and better integrate her supply chain, building her own production facilitiesthe first midwestern meth labin Iowa.

In this effort, the crumbled local agricultural economy turned out to be a boon. Falling tax revenues had left local law enforcement underfunded, understaffed, and unable to stop her. Hard-up fertilizer suppliers and farmers were happy to cut deals on large volumes of anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer ingredient that is also used in meth processing. And unlike other drugs, meth didnt require contraband raw materials from South America or Southeast Asia. Its most exotic ingredient, ephedrine, was also used to manufacture cold medicationwhich meant that efforts by the DEA to place restrictions on its importation were routinely thwarted by the pharmaceutical lobby and its congressional champions, such as Senator Orrin Hatch, who guaranteed that ephedrine would remain free of federal regulation. Not since Prohibition had an illegal drug been so easy to make inconspicuously by anyone with a high schoolgrade knowledge of chemistry. In 2004, law enforcement officials busted 1,370 meth labs in Arnolds home state alone.


M ethland
s second narrative starts circa 2005 in Oelwein, a town of a little less than seven thousand that grew up around a now-much-diminished meatpacking industry. In the still-reverberating aftershocks of the farm crisis, Oelwein has been reduced to scrapping with a suburb of Mumbai for a new call center to keep its local economy afloat. Reding chooses the town less for the severity of its meth problemits bad, but not the worstthan for Oelweins ability to serve as the iconic American Small Town of the books subtitle. He follows an ensemble cast of localsthe mayor, a county prosecutor, a doctor, an unrepentant meth addict, and a recovering oneover several years, from 2005 to 2008, as they wrestle professionally and personally with Oelweins meth problem.

Redings group portrait of Oelweins residents is nuanced and complex in a way that journalists depictions of the rural Midwest rarely are; he has a keen eye for details, catching a bartender at a local dive surreptitiously reusing plastic straws and noticing one of his characters hint of a Minnesotan accent, “extending each opening syllable toward the innards of a word.” He observes his subjects at close rangeoften uncomfortably so, dutifully chronicling the toll that Oelweins cultural and economic upheavals take on the prosecutors love life, and the way that Roland Jarvis finesses a Bic lighter with the nubs of his lost fingers to light his pipe, his eyes “as wildly dilated as a patient waiting in the low light of an ophthalmologists office.”

Jarvis notwithstanding, meth itself turns out to be just one of many problems for most of Redings subjects. They are concerned with their own jobs, community development projects, and the knock-on effects of life in economically and socially turbulent circumstances. One of the better characters in Methland is Dr. Clay Hallberg, a garrulous general practitioner in Oelwein who plays in a cover band on weekends and is fond of holding forth on Noam Chomsky. Reding watches Hallberg struggle with the future of his practice, which he has inherited from his father, while simultaneously stumbling into alcoholism, ultimately drying himself out after wrecking his truck in a cornfield. Oelweins meth problem, which Hallberg mostly encounters via the related ailments of his patients, is simply one more thing he has on his plate. This is more or less the plight of the rural Midwest in miniature, and Reding doesnt pretend to offer much in the way of solutions.

Unfortunately, Reding pushes the big-think conceit of Methland a bit too far, trying to fit drug traffickers in a geostrategic context as a sort of geographically dispersed “disconnected state,” drawing strained parallels between Mexican drug cartels and American pharmaceutical companies, and generally struggling for a unified theory of “the meaning of meth.” None of it adds up to much, in large part because in Redings otherwise fine telling, the meaning of meth is a whole lot simpler than all that: it is that capitalism, for better or worse, is a destructive force, and woefully unforgiving of those who dont adapt. In Methlands most illuminating scene, Lori Arnold emerges from serving a nine-year prison term to find that the meth economy she built in Ottumwa has been completely transformed, her own product supplanted by a purer variety shipped in bulk from California and Mexico. For two years, Arnold works menial meatpacking and fast-food jobs while she methodically searches for her niche in the new supply chain. The rough-and-tumble world of commercial enterprise, Arnold knows by now, isnt going to cut anyone a break, even an innovator like herself.

This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036