The Social World of Methamphetamine

(Originally published August 2010)

Nick Reding’s, Methland: The Death and Life Of An American Small Town (2009) is an account of methamphetamine production, distribution and use in Oelwein, Iowa and a reflection on the economic changes in rural America that have been fertile ground for methamphetamine abuse. The strength of Reding’s analysis is   his insistent focus on the social context in which use of methamphetamine  became widely viewed as a devastating epidemic in rural American towns, and on the complicity of pharmaceutical companies and the federal government (until recently) in resisting regulation of basic ingredients ( ephedrine and pseudo ephedrine) of methamphetamine production.


Oelwein is a small town of a few thousand people in Fayette County, Iowa, a farming community in which three quarters of farms have gone out of business since the early 1980s, “a trend reflected everywhere in the rural United States,” Reding states. These farms have been swallowed up by a handful (literally) of corporations that control this country’s food production or were bought by a few families who own most of the land in this rural county. Reding comments, “With their land sold and no jobs, large numbers of people have left the farm belt in the past two and a half decades.” Oelwein’s population declined from 8,000 to a little more than 6,000 between 1960 and 1990. “Along with this (decline in population) came a decline in education and employment. Of those who remain in rural America, only one in ten men over the age of twenty five have at least two years of college education. Unemployment averages one and a half times that of the urban United States,” Reding asserts.


In addition to the loss of farms, there has also been a loss of manufacturing jobs in Fayette County, and the jobs that remain pay a fraction of what they paid in the 1980s and early 90s. Reding writes that “into this vacuum had moved the production and distribution of methamphetamine. Not only in Oelwein, but all across Iowa, meth had become one of the leading growth sectors of the economy.”  Within a few years, “farming and agriculture began vying with a drug to be Oelwein's lifeblood.”  According to the local prosecutor, “People began referring to Oelwein as ‘Methlehem’.”


It is not difficult to understand why local farmers facing bankruptcy and the loss of  their livelihood would sell anhydrous ammonia (a common fertilizer) to meth “cooks” or give up farming for methamphetamine production, but these business decisions made sense only in communities where there was a large and stable demand for methamphetamine among low income persons with limited disposable income. Part of the appeal of methamphetamine in small town America is that the drug feeds the capacity to work long hours, possibly at more than one low wage job. Methamphetamine has been ideally suited to the circumstances of adults who have lost well paying jobs and must work day and night to make ends meet. It is also a short term euphoric antidote for despair and hopelessness, and, as such, has found a ready market among groups highly vulnerable to depression, e.g., low income women with children.


It is not an accident that the combination of substance abuse and child maltreatment that led to more than a doubling of the nation’s foster care population between 1986 -1999 was mainly associated with two bookend stimulant drugs, first crack cocaine in urban areas, and then about a decade later, methamphetamine. In the short term, these drugs are cheap and accessible effective anti –depressants that restore and maintain both morale and activity levels. In the long run, methamphetamine undermines the capacity to experience normal pleasures (unless accompanied by meth use) and intensifies depression, sleep loss, memory loss, anxiety and paranoia while also occasionally causing  terrifying hallucinations, for example of insects crawling out of the user’s skin or of helicopters hovering overhead, according to Reding. Methland also tells the story of an Oelwein meth addict who burned off most of his face and several fingers “cooking” meth and who compulsively scratches “open pussing” body sores, lest readers are tempted to purchase a short term sense of intense well being at an exorbitant interest rate. 


In child welfare agencies in the West and Midwest, methamphetamine abuse has been primarily associated with neglect of young children, but it is nevertheless the threat of violence accompanying the drug that has aroused community concern and had a lasting effect on the development of affected children. Reding comments on “thousands of stories across the country blaming meth for delusional violence, morbid depravity, extreme sexual perversion, and an almost otherworldly hallucinogenic dimension of evil.”


Reding provides examples of violence typical of any illegal drug trade in which opposing factions fight for market dominance; but before dismissing Reding’s comments as lurid journalistic exaggerations, it is worth watching a recent compelling movie, Winter Bones, about a 17 year old girl in rural Missouri searching for her meth producing father who has jumped bail and, in doing so, put the family’s property at risk. This young girl is responsible for the care of two younger siblings and her mentally ill mother. She undertakes a determined search for her father among extended family members, several of whom are meth “cooks” and users. At one point, a relative says of a member of the extended family, “he’s cooking meth,” to which the 17 year old replies, “they all are; there’s no need to even say it.”


 There is incipient violence in almost every scene in Winter Bones as this courageous young woman searches for her father among meth producers and “tweakers” (i.e.,persons coming off of meth binges) with family interests to protect and well deserved reputations for violence. In Winter Bones, potential for violence is much a product of the social milieu in which methamphetamine production and abuse occur as in the paranoia and bizarre hallucinations   that sometimes accompany heavy doses of the drug. There is a scene in Winter Bones in which a sheriff’s deputy prudently allows a male relative of the 17 year old to defy his authority during a traffic stop. The teenager’s uncle (a chronic meth user) is ready to have a shoot out with the deputy with the 17 year old in the truck over what he regards as harassment. In one of the final scenes of the movie, the deputy warns the young woman “not to be saying I backed down.”


A culture of masculinity in which “backing down” from potentially deadly violence can be ruinous to reputation along with long standing grievances against law enforcement authorities and a need to protect criminal enterprises combine to  create a thinly masked potential for violence present in most of the social interactions in Winter Bones. Interestingly, when family members threatened by the teenager’s search for her father decide to stop it through violence, women in the extended family carry out the brutal beating. Otherwise, the uncle of the 17-year-old would be required to retaliate in kind against any male family member who took part in the assault of his niece.


 Children of Methamphetamine Families ( 200?) by Wendy Haight,  makes much the same point regarding the violent ambience of methamphetamine in a scholarly way. Haight, et al interviewed school age children removed from birth parents in rural Illinois because of meth abuse. These children were in foster care mostly due to neglect; but when the children were asked about conditions in their parents’ homes prior to their removal they had little or nothing to say about neglect; they talked instead of being frightened by yelling, fighting, threats, occasional family violence that occurred during meth binges. Approximately 20- 25 percent of these children defended their parents’ actions, denied that their parents were abusing drugs and expressed anger at law enforcement and child welfare authorities for arresting their parents and breaking up their families. A smaller percentage of children were fed up with their parents and wanted nothing more to do with them, while most of the children acknowledged that their parents needed help but still wanted to be returned to their parents’ custody at some point.


Surprisingly, Methland has a happy ending, at least in regard to Oelwein. A few community leaders mobilized to eliminate local meth cooks through use of draconian police measures, and a far sighted mayor embarked on a bold economic revitalization plan that brought new business’ to the town. Law enforcement authorities in Oelwein and other cities and towns in the Midwest were able to send some large meth producers and distributors to prison. However, local law enforcement authorities could not effectively deal with large drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) based in Mexico or South America. These DTOs gradually took over most of the production and distribution of methamphetamine in the Midwest, according to Reding, a trend that mirrored the loss of family farms and control of U.S. food production by a few large corporations. 


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