Methland: Small Town America Choked By What's Supposed to Save It (The American Dream)

I admit, I picked up Methland because I wanted to be titillated by the downfall of a meth-addled Midwest American town. Yet, Methland never goes in for the cheap shot - it well balances tales of the horror that meth inflicts with deeper investigation as to why meth has such a hold on Middle America i.e. that it is complementary (and even necessary) to uphold the American work ethic and the rise of Big Business

Meth's influence in Middle America is illustrated at the micro level via Oelwein, Iowa, a small town in the grips of a full-blown epidemic - meth labs explosions set houses afire, people ride bikes late at night cooking meth in soda bottles, kids are left to care for their younger siblings. We meet Roland Jarvis, a dedicated addict despite the fact that he has lost most of his limbs and face from a lab explosion. Then there's Clay Hallburg and Nathan Lein, town doctor and county prosecutor respectively, struggling to right their town and reinstill the pride that it sorely lacks. And there's trafficker Lori Arnold who exemplifies how profitable and well-oiled trafficking of the drug has become.

Author Nick Reding intertwines the story of Oelwein with the greater picture of why meth and America are such great bedfellows. Here's what you didn't know about meth: it was prescribed legally as an appetite suppressant and anti-depressant well into the 1980's. Meth's reputation went downhill when biker gangs such as the Sons of Silence in the Midwest began to produce and distribute it. Soon meth was available widely to those who needed it the most - Middle America labourers struggling to survive massive economic change.

In the 1970's, the food production industry became increasingly centralized. No longer were the mom and pop farms of yesteryear - expensive machinery and vast acreage was needed to compete and few could. Food processing plants were bought up by the big corporations and wages dropped drastically, benefits disappeared. To make ends meet many workers began working double shifts for much less pay.

The American Dream hinges on the rewards a citizen will reap from hard work. Heroin is so despised (and hasn't caught on to the degree that meth has) because it makes you lazy. Meth, on the other hand, makes the American Dream possible - it allows you to work really really hard (at a crap job for low pay, see above) and feel good about doing it.

Meth is also very, very good at making people feel great - it not only stops the re-uptake of dopamine (causing a flood of happy feelings) but actually goes inside the presynaptic cells to remove dopamine and it works on the limbic system of the brain (the reward centre). The short of it is that meth destroys your ability to enjoy anything else but meth - not food, not sex, not love - as meth so changes your brain's chemistry.

Even though meth is closely tied to the American Dream, the prevailing attitude is that meth is the problem of a few, that addicts are anomalies. The notorious Faces of Meth program only makes the addicts seem like the 'other'. Yet the reality of meth is that it is an epidemic that affects all classes and peoples.

Meth's prevalence is also aided by illegal immigration. Meth is sent up from Mexico with illegal immigrants and because they have no paperwork and jump from job to job, it is very difficult to combat meth's distribution. Yet without these illegal immigrants the food production system would be crippled - corporations require their cheap labour (25% of all agricultural jobs in the US are held by illegal immigrants). Another option to combat meth use is to more closely regulate the import of pseudoephedrine (a key ingredient in both meth and cold medicine like Sudefed) yet any proposed government legislation intended to monitor quantities imported has been countered successfully by Big Pharma.

At the root of all of these problems is the fact that drug trafficking is much the same as the flu - it attacks where the body politic is weakest. Although we like to think that true disconnection only occurs in far flung places like Yemen or North Korea, extreme marginalization also occurs in first world countries. This is what Oelwein is experiencing on a micro level - deprived of quality jobs and income, its people have fallen prey to meth. A serious problem is on our hands. A shift in attitude is the first step towards fixing it.

Methland/ Nick Reding / Bloomsbury US / HC, 2009

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