Small-town scourge

By Steve Weinberg
July 2, 2009
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In 1898, a Japanese chemist synthesized the substance methamphetamine. It gained popularity because ingesting it made people feel good. Other scientists refined the process so that mass production of the drug became practical. It seemed like an all-purpose drug, prescribed by physicians for conditions ranging from schizophrenia to the common cold. Researchers also understood, however, that what eventually became known as “meth’’ and “crank’’ could result in addiction leading to antisocial behavior, including violent acts such as murder and rape.

The substance did not start destroying previously cohesive towns across the nation until the 1980s. While researching the scourge of meth, author Nick Reding learned that it is cheap and easy to manufacture “from items available, in bulk, at the farmers’ co-op and the drug store.’’

A decade ago, Reding started visiting the Midwest frequently. He wanted to write about methamphetamine, and “everybody knew’’ that small-town Missouri had sadly become the meth capital, followed by small-town Iowa. Although Missouri towns figure prominently in “Methland,’’ Reding sets the primary narrative in the Iowa towns of Oelwein and Ottumwa.

The book almost featured a California setting, Reding discloses. Early in his research, he drove around the Central Valley, ending up in San Jose. “I didn’t know what I was looking at when I saw how some of the canals in the most isolated parts of the valley ran red,’’ Reding says. “Later, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent told me that, in addition to providing water for the most prolific farm country in the nation, the canals were dump sites for red phosphorous from meth superlabs hidden among the orange and pecan groves.’’

Wherever it is produced, meth can be made on a small scale, in a kitchen sink, for instance. The key ingredient can be extracted from over-the-counter cold medicine pills. Meth is highly addictive. Used frequently, it destroys teeth, compromises physical health, causes delusions, and can lead to criminal acts among users desperate to purchase more. Small-scale meth makers too addled to follow basic precautions sometimes blow up houses, poison children, and shoot at law enforcement officers.

Because investigative journalists such as Reding yearn to convey the big picture that explains the small-town microcosms, they look for patterns. Meth has become a multinational business culture different from Monsanto or Wal-Mart only in the nature of its ultimate product.

Reding demonstrates such growth with the unforgettable example of Lori Arnold in Ottumwa. Arnold was already a shirt-tail celebrity before becoming a meth corporate queen - she is the sister of Tom Arnold, the actor formerly married to comedienne Roseanne Barr. The ease with which Lori Arnold grew her business while eluding law enforcement for years is astounding. A key part of her operation involved illegal immigrants, many from Mexico, employed primarily in meat-packing plants and other exploitative industries in local towns. Those immigrants could smuggle meth ingredients to Arnold, build a customer base among plant workers, and create logjams within small-town police departments.

As Reding notes, putting together the puzzle pieces for his readers, the Arnold saga “highlights the overlapping paths of the food, pharmaceutical and illegal narcotics industries in the United States.’’

By knowingly employing undocumented laborers from Mexico plus Central and South American nations, meatpackers and other US industries enable meth sellers to smuggle product, then sell the crank to be used as a psychological escape by poorly treated plant workers. By opposing legislation that would limit imports and suspicious retail purchases of cold medicines, pharmaceutical companies have frustrated law enforcement efforts to shutter meth labs.

Given the intransigence of corporations that influence legislators with steady campaign contributions, Reding wonders if the meth scourge will ever end.

Steve Weinberg is the author, most recently, of “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.’’

'Methland,' Nick Reding

METHLAND The Death and Life of an American Small Town

By Nick Reding

Bloomsbury, 255 pp., $25

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