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Main Street’s meth problem

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Economics and a lack of resources play a key role in the methamphetamine problem in North America’s small towns

In much the same way as the crack epidemic and the myriad social problems
that came with it came to embody the drug panic of the 1980s and early
1990s—news reports of the time were filled with stories of social chaos
in inner-cities, out-of-control crime rates and, perhaps most notoriously,
“crack babies” born addicted to the drug languishing in hospital
nurseries—methamphetamines captured the imaginations of journalists and
citizens in the mid-2000s.

Reports of clandestine labs that could be set up anywhere, deadly
explosions caused by the dangerous and toxic chemicals employed in these
labs, the rapid spread of meth and advertising featuring horrific physical
disfigurement caused by the drug fueled a widespread panic over
methamphetamine. Worse yet, the meth problem didn’t seem to be confined to
the urban ghettos that, at least within the public imagination, most other
drugs are. Meth was everywhere, and it was on the brink of tearing society
apart.

Journalist and author Nick Reding, whose book Methland (Bloomsbury,
255 pp, $31) chronicles one American small town’s struggle against
methamphetamine at the height of the media panic surrounding the drug, spent
parts of four years in Oelwein, Iowa—in what Reding calls America’s
Midwest “flyover zone” between New York and Los Angeles—documenting the
effects meth had in a rural environment, effects which are, he argues, far
more devastating than in urban areas.

“In terms of the number of addicts per capita, there’ll never be more meth
addicts in the state of Iowa than there are in Los Angeles, San Diego and San
Francisco alone,” he says over the phone from his home in St. Louis, “but Los
Angeles and San Diego can absorb the associated costs of meth addiction much
more than Oelwein, Iowa can, because they have much more access to tax
revenue and funding and treatment and law enforcement and industry than a lot
of the smaller places do.”

A significant part of the media sensation over meth, Reding explains, was
due to the incredulousness of citizens over the fact that the drug was being
used so heavily and was having such a devastating impact on American small
towns.

“When you read media coverage during ’03 and ’04 and ’05, the media was
constantly, as I myself was, fascinated by the idea that there was a drug
problem of any kind in the small-town United States,” he says. “I think in
America everybody accepts the fact that in Compton or Watts or the Bronx or
in Cabrini-Green in Chicago that things are not okay; they’re poor, they’re
drug-addled. But it’s very difficult for us to accept that things might not
be okay in Oelwein, Iowa—we don’t want to think about that. That’s one
reason I chose to anchor this book in the small-town United States.”

In Methland, Reding introduces readers to some of Oelwein’s meth
addicts, meth dealers and cooks, in addition to police, the town prosecutor
and the town’s doctor, all of whom are attempting to thwart the scourge. In
small-town America, Reding argues, the fact that wages are
decreasing—which, as he shows, leads to individuals using meth for
practical purposes so that they can work longer shifts—coupled with an
already problematic lack of resources that continues to dwindle has led to
the crisis he observed while in Oelwein.

“People don’t make any money anymore and there’s no tax revenue,” he says.
“If there’s no tax revenue then things that people in other places take for
granted such as how we’re going to pay the police force, how we’re going to
keep the high school open, how we’re going to keep the hospital open, how
we’re going to keep the streetlights on at night, those things are not
forgone conclusions anymore; they’ve become difficult economic realities
because you can’t do all of them anymore.”

Canada’s small towns have seen similar trends over the past decade. Even
in a town like Drayton Valley, where the oil industry provides good wages to
many in the town, meth made its presence felt. Referred to as “Drunken
Valley” in a 2006 Edmonton Journal story about the town’s plans to clean up
its image at the height of what came to be known as the meth epidemic,
Drayton Valley struggled, as did many small towns in the area, with the
social problems that come with drugs.

According to Liam C., a former addict and dealer who at one point was
moving large quantities of meth through Drayton Valley, the town he lived in
was characterized by the same type of circumstances which Reding spells out
in Oelwein: the necessity of hard work and long hours combined with the lack
of police resources to put a real dent in the problem once it started. When
he was dealing, Liam explains, not only was he selling drugs to kids who
wanted to party, he also serviced their parents.

“In Drayton Valley there were a lot of guys working out on the rigs,” he
says, “so I’d have kids coming to me on the weekend to party and buy their
drugs and then I’d have their parents coming to me on the weekdays and they
would all be using it while working on the rigs to stay awake for their
12-hour or 24-hour shifts.”

And though the police would sometimes show up at the all-night parties he
and his friends would throw, nothing much came of it.
“Like most small towns there were a few [RCMP] cars that go in and out all
day that we’re sharing with 10 other communities,” he recalls. “It was pretty
easy to get away with almost anything in a small town like that because
there’s not police all over like there is in a city like Edmonton.”

Reding’s book is not simply an historical document of the ravages of
methamphetamines on a small town, however: it’s also a treatise against what
he sees as the important underlying factors in meth’s spread throughout the
rural areas of the United States: the corporatization of American industry
and the power wielded by corporate lobbyists.

Wielding large amounts of power within the American political system,
pharmaceutical lobbyists have been behind the neutering of national bills
that would closely monitor the amount of pseudoephedrine—one of the key
components in methamphetamines—being imported into the country.
Clinging to the free-market ideology, pharmaceutical lobbyists have long
argued that such oversight is too stringent and would negatively affect their
companies’ bottom lines. Through the efforts of these lobbyists, bills which
began as something that could possibly be effective become nothing more than
paper tigers.

“There’s this consistent idea in government that if you pass a law it will
be fine, regardless of what it says. As long as it’s the ‘Combat
Methamphetamine Act’ then it will combat methamphetamine,” Reding says. “If
it had been passed in the form it had originally been written then it would
have helped to combat methamphetamine, but honestly I think the blame falls
squarely on the lobbyists who basically take all the usefulness out of these
laws and it falls squarely on the legislators who allow it to happen.”

In addition to the failings of legislators in the United States and the
self-interest of the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbyists, Methland argues
that the corporatization of America and the conglomeration of agriculture and
industry in rural areas shares the blame.

“If you’re willing to accept the fact that drugs follow poverty and that
the rural United States is increasingly impoverished and there’s increased
use of methamphetamine, then you [have to] look at why it’s increasingly
impoverished; it’s as simple as the defining industries of that part of the
country—which is agriculture and manufacturing—which have, over
the course of the last 20 or 30 years, cut wages so incredibly and taken away
all benefits. And the result in a place like Oelwein, Iowa is that there’s no
money,” he says.

“You couple that with a collective sense of despondence and a drug that
will make you incredibly happy and high and people start doing more of it,”
he continues. “Add to that that it’s an easy drug to make and they can make
it themselves and make pretty good money—since they can’t find a job
anywhere else—then that certainly adds to the attraction of
methamphetamine.”

While things are starting to look up in the small towns with the resources
and wherewithal to fight back against meth—through sprucing up their
downtowns and a number of other civic measures, both Oelwein and Drayton
Valley have been able to reverse the decay which had threatened to overtake
them—drugs continue to be a problem.

“They’re still kind of bucking the trend. Within the last year—as
things have gotten a bit more difficult in a lot of places—Oelwein has
really continued to prosper more,” Reding says of the current situation. “But
the number of meth cases is steady—that’s the bad news.” V

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