Saturday, March 13, 2010

Small Towns in Meth's Deadly Grip

Methamphetamine in America's small towns! (A book review)
by Charlie Leck

In reading through Nick Reding's book about "the death and life of an American small town," I found myself again and again being troubled more than I wanted to be.

"I don't need this," I said to myself several times and put the book down, giving up on it. I'd go play in the kitchen and I couldn't get Reding's story out of my mind. So, I'd drift back in toward my favorite reading chair, sit down, and pick the book back up and find the page where I left off.

Reding can write well and he is a smooth, comfortable read. His account is not a comfortable one, however, and it will make you both sad and dolorous. If you, like I, never quite understood the methamphetamine craze, this book will change that.

I like small-town America. I particularly like small-town Iowa. A feeling of innocence seems to come to mind when I think about or visit towns in Iowa like Garner, or Eldora, or Independence. Towns like this look safe, clean and trouble free. These towns, I think to myself, seem like wonderful places to raise a family.

Well, Nick Reding changed all that for me. His account is about the dying, impoverished small towns in states like Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas. Oelwein, Iowa, becomes his poster child for explaining what happens when jobs disappear and small town Americans can't find work that can sustain them.

Oelwein, for example, once had a meat packing house that was unionized and paid someone willing to work hard a decent amount of money -- about $18 an hour. The plant was purchased in 1992 by Gillette and "overnight the union was dismantled and the wages... fell... to $6.20." And, health insurance was discontinued.

How would you like to have two-thirds of your wages taken away and continue doing the same job?

Those people who continued to work tried to work double shifts. They found out that the drug, methamphetamine, would help -- that you didn't tire and you weren't hungry when you were on it.

The story is so much more complicated than that one little example, but the root cause doesn't change. Small town America was drying up. Family farms and the small businesses that supported those farms were disappearing, taken over by the giant agricultural corporations like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Swift and ConAgra. The spirits of lots of people were broken. They turned to drugs and then they turned to the manufacture and dealing of drugs. Illegal Mexican immigrants began to replace the local workers at the meat packing plants and then at other food producing facilities. So many illegal workers were employed in these industries that any kind of crack down on the practice would have thrown the food production industry in America into chaos. With the illegal immigrants came purer forms of meth produced in huge batches on the central west coast of Mexico or from Columbia.

In addition, the big food production companies didn't want a crack down on illegal immigrants and they paid big money to lobbyists to convince members of Congress to go soft on immigration reform.

The stories of broken people and families is difficult stuff to read. The damage done to little children is stuff you won't want to hear. The inability of local governments to deal with the overwhelming problem will make you sad. The way the drug companies looked the other way and funneled big money to politicians to ignore the problem will make you angry.

And you'll grow angrier still when you realize that U.S. Senators like Orin Hatch could have come down hard on the problem of meth years and years ago, but listened, instead, to drug company lobbyists and didn't do anything. There's lots of guilt to go around here. There's lots of people and institutions to blame, but it doesn't change the fact that thousands of lives in America's heartland were lost or terribly damaged by this savage drug.

Methland is one of the most compelling and interesting books I've read in years. It's not easy to read and it's not easy to put down and that's a conundrum of the most complicated sort.

And the soul of the story is set in Oelwine, Iowa. This is the heartland. This is America as rural, small town and solid. Except all that has changed. Farm towns are not what they once were and they will never be so again.
"By May 2005, Oelwein was on the brink of disaster. As I stood on First Street in front of the post office, the signs of entropy were everywhere, and hardly less subtle than those in East New York, Brooklyn, or in Compton or Watts, in Los Angeles. The sidewalks were cracked, half the buildings on Main Street stood vacant, and foot traffic was practically nonexistent. Seven in ten children in Oelwein under the age of twelve lived below the poverty line. Up at the four-hundred student high school, on Eighth Avenue SE, 80 percent of the students were eligible for the federal school lunch program. The principal, meantime, was quietly arranging with the local police to patrol the halls with a drug-sniffing dog -- essentially to treat the high school as a perpetual crime scene. The burned out homes of former meth labs dotted the residential streets and avenues like open sores. At the same time, the Iowa Department of Human Services... was cutting 90 percent of its funding to the town. The meatpacking plant was on the verge of closing its doors. The industrial park sat unoccupied. Unemployment was pegged at twice the national level..."
No Norman Rockwell painting this! The lore and romance of small-town America, out there on the prairie, was dead or dying fast.

Reding introduces you to one methhead after another. Some have ruined their own lives completely. Some managed to stop and escape before the worst happened. Some ruined the lives of their children by passing their own addictions on to their kids. However, Reding allows you to meet all of them as real, breathing and completely human persons. And, you will never in your life-time forget Roland Jarvis. Nor will you forget the helicopters Jarvis thought he heard hovering above his meth lab, and the way he set the house on fire, and how he watched his own skin melt from his body as he tried to save his meth from the advancing fire.

Methland is one of those books that we don't want to read, but we need to read. Those of us who grew up in small town America will be especially sad to admit to the stark truth that Reding espouses.
"Rural America remains the cradle of our national creation myth. But it has become something else, too -- something more sinister and difficult to define. Whether meth changed our perception of the American small town or simply brought to light the fact that things in small-town America are much changed is in some ways irrelevant. In my telling, meth has always been less an agent of change and more of a symptom of it. 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."
There's actually some good news for Oelwein, Iowa, in this book. The town, through hard work and good, old American grit, rebuilds itself and puts on a new face. It creates a few jobs for people, too.

However, Oelwein, like all of Iowa, is a changed place and Mexican and Columbian drug trafficking organizations have made is so. Federal legislation to combat meth and illegal immigration was too little and too late. If fact, those in power really didn't want tough and effective legislation. The profits were too big and they helped spin the rest of the national economy. There should be no rocking of the boat. Reding says clearly that failure to pass tough laws against the illegal drug industry was "the direct result of lobbying related to the pharmaceutical industry."
" was the National Association of Retail Chain Stores, which represents... the five major pharmaceutical drug chains in the United States: Target, Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreens and Rite-Aid. The organization's acronym,... NARCS."
If you care, and if you don't mind being rattled and angered, Methland is a damned important book and an excellent read.

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