The Adventures of America's Original Meth Queen

By Jeff Maysh 03/21/11

Lori Arnold single-handedly turned meth into an American plague, earning millions of dollars and two stints in prison. What does America's most notorious meth mogul (and Tom Arnold's kid sister) have to say now that she's out of the hole? An exclusive interview.

Lori Arnold (with then-husband Floyd Stockdall) transformed the drug landscape
of Middle America
Photo: Coleman-Rayner

“Not long ago I was walking around with $100,000 cash in my purse,” Lori Kaye Arnold happily reminisces, while taking a break at the bleak Arizona call center where she now works. An attractive woman of 51, with a thick mane of auburn hair and distractingly blank eyes, she looks no different to the dozens of workers milling about her. It's a safe bet most of them are unaware that she was once one of the biggest drug dealers in America.

As it turns out, Arnold was a pioneer in the meth business, the dealer deemed most responsible for unleashing the crystal epidemic that went on to ruin the lives of thousands of people across the country. The penalty she paid for her crimes—16 years in jail—was, according to her, “well worth it.” If anything, she now speaks wistfully of the good times when she was earning truck-fuls of cash a month and was treated as a local celebrity. In his best-selling Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, author Nick Reding described Arnold as a shrewd, sociopathic operator, “able to weave together…various political, sociological and chemical threads into the Midwest’s first and last bona fide crank empire.” According to Reding, “With [Arnold], the very concept of industrialized meth in rural places like Iowa was born." In just a matter of months, it spread from Iowa to other states in the Midwest, and eventually became the drug of choice for cash-strapped addicts across the country.

Methamphetamine is an unshakeable, vicious killer high that is very difficult to escape.  It also suffers from the worst P.R. campaign in history. According to historians, Adolf Hitler had an unquenchable thirst for the drug and meth was widely manufactured and used by German soldiers during World War II, giving rise to one of its many nick-names: Nazi crank. More recently, health groups have launched a series of nationwide campaigns to show the frightening deterioration the drug can produce. But the plethora of ads featuring wrinkled, skeletal, toothless addicts staring out of police mug shots have strangely done little to impede the drug’s popularity, especially across large sections of Middle America and working-class enclaves in the West, Northwest and California. Meth has also won a following in gay strongholds like San Francisco’s Castro, New York’s Chelsea and Florida's South Beach, where it’s blamed for a marked upsurge in H.I.V.

In the last decade, some 10 million Americans have used meth (a.k.a. crank, glass, ice and crystal), with as many as 1.2 million getting hooked. It's created by bathtub bandits who can conjure the stuff out of household salts, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (a key chemical in cold tablets), as well as from such toxic delights as Drano and battery acid. Urban myths circulate about pushers who soak innocent marijuana in the concoction. Now meth has become America’s poison, a billion-dollar scourge and medical emergency—in no small part due to the former efforts of a matronly 51-year-old, who is currently employed making random cold calls out of a warehouse in suburban Phoenix. That’s quite a comedown for a woman who owned and operated a cutting-edge, computerized crystal-meth lab on her horse farm, never mind being Tom Arnold’s little sister.

Born in Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1961, Lori Arnold describes her younger self as a goofy girl with few prospects and big ambitions. She dropped out of school and set off across America on the backseats of a succession of Harleys, driven by a succession of boyfriends. It was on one of these trips to California, after marrying Floyd Stockdall, that Lori started peddling pharmaceutical-grade methamphetamine. Stockdall, a biker and former president of the Grim Reapers Motorcycle Club, had a connection to a major meth lab in Southern California, where the meth trade was then largely confined. Immediately enthralled by the freaky buzz when she first tried crystal in 1986, the new Mrs. Stockdall thoughtfully brought back some of the magic powder to share with her friends at home. Unsurprisingly, they liked it, too. As more and more people approached her for the drug, Arnold quickly saw the economic possibilities. Within a month, she was buying four ounces of meth in Long Beach for $2,500 and selling it at a markup of $10,000 in Iowa, where taste for the drug was growing virally by the day.

“They were extremely exciting times,” she now says, of the six years during which her business selling the new “Hollywood” drug thrived. “It was constant partying, so much fun. I had everything—the cars, the clubs, the money. I even bought a plane, just because I could. My friend got a plane, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll get one of those.’” To transport large quantities of meth around the state? “No, just for fun! I loved collecting little toys like planes.”

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Jeff Maysh is a British/American non-fiction writer based in Los Angeles. He writes about unbelievable true crimes for publications including The Atlantic, BBC News Magazine, Los Angeles, Playboy, Smithsonian, and The Daily Beast. Jeff’s subjects have included bank robbers, spies, wrestlers, undercover cops, fake cheerleaders, pornographers, and candy smugglers. He is the author of The Spy With No Name and Follow and Handsome Devil. Follow Jeff on Twitter.