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.”

In less than two years, Arnold’s rapidly-growing merchandising operation had tangled the Midwest in an ever-tightening stranglehold of addiction—affecting not just teenagers and college students but workers, manufacturers and suburban moms. After spending several years using her Iowa hometown as the distribution hub for her imported booty, Arnold decided to increase profits by dumping her California supplier and producing the drug herself on-site. In this way, meth slid in the barn door unnoticed, leading to a steady march through America’s heartland. Arnold had introduced the region to its first cook-it-at-home drug: now anyone could make it.

When her brother, Tom Arnold, married Roseanne Barr, a woman with her own strong grip on Middle America, Lori’s celebrity connection helped confirm her status as the newly crowned Queen of Crank. “My brother Tom had problems of his own at the time,” she says now. “I don’t think my activities affected his career. We’re still close, we speak all the time.” (According to People magazine, he and Barr actually covered her legal fees in 1991. These days, Tom Arnold, now sober,  uses his sister’s drug dealing as material in his comedy routines.)

Reding, whose Methland is the pre-eminent book on the subject, described Arnold’s meteoric rise this way: “Lori, who had not made it past tenth grade… bought 52 race horses—hired a dozen or so groomers, trainers, veterinarians, and jockeys to maintain them—and purchased a 144-acre horse farm.” She was rolling in money and had her business not been in narcotics, she might have been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

In 1989, she owned a couple of bars, a car dealership and 14 houses. By then she had dumped her biker hubby and become a mother to an eight-year-old son. This was the same year most of the farms in that part of Iowa went into foreclosure and most of the railroad and meatpacking jobs in the area disappeared in a puff of smoke. But the area's economic devastation only seemed to bolster Arnold's business. There was just one industry on the rise in Iowa at the time, and it was Arnold’s crank factory. Unfortunately for her, she had long flagrantly violated the golden rule of any successful drug dealer, by dipping into her own stash. Growing careless with her success, Arnold was consuming vast amounts of crystal with reckless abandon. “When people start making money, it goes to their heads—just like meth does,” she admits. “I was having the time of my life. But I knew it couldn’t last forever.”

She was right. After fielding tips from several disaffected clients, the feds finally caught up with her in 1990, and Arnold was sent to prison: “After the court hearing, the lawyer said to me, ‘We can get you a good deal if you enter a plea agreement,’” she recalls. “He told me that I should plea for 25 years. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. My hands started to shake uncontrollably.” She pled guilty and was convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering and the distribution and manufacture of meth, among other counts. “The court case was so emotional,” she says. “I tried to remain strong and smile for the jury, but whenever they mentioned my boy I broke down, sobbing. Eventually they handed me 12 years." By all accounts a model prisoner, she was eventually released after serving just eight.

By the time of her departure from prison in 1999, Iowa had beome an increasingly despondent state. With factories closing almost daily, unemployment shot up to sky-high rates. The average wage in the state dropped to five bucks an hour. Back in her hometown, Arnold tried to go straight for a time, working as a butcher at a Cargill meatpacking plant. But slicing up hogs was a gig the grandiose gangster couldn't settle for. Still, her time at Cargill was well spent: It was there that the ever-resourceful Arnold first noticed the gap in quality between the homemade crystal meth the factory's white workers were consuming and the much higher-grade stuff enjoyed by her Mexican colleagues. Eager to get back into the business, Arnold decided to circumvent the local meth dispensaries and struck up a lucrative relationship with a group of Mexian dealers. In just a few months, they were supplying her with huge bales of "quality Mexican meth," which she distributed across the Midwest in return for a generous commission.

“I was proud to say the product I was dealing with was very pure. It was good stuff,” she says. “You didn’t see those scary before-and-after pictures that you see today.” (In fact, pure meth may be safer than the stuff on the street, but it's no less addictive.) Once again, Arnold had shrewdly spotted a gap in the market. By 2001, she was selling so much crystal that she got back into the nightclub game to launder all the money. But this time her high life was short-lived. After selling four ounces of the drug to an undercover cop, a meth-addicted Arnold was sent back to prison in October 2001 for seven and a half years.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the anemic economy, the industry that the Queen of Crank bequeathed to Middle America shows few signs of abating. After a brief decline in usage from 2006 to 2008, meth consumption is on the rise again nationally, with 502,000 Americans reporting past-month use and 1.2 million reporting past-year use, according to the 2009 National Drug Use and Health survey.

Yet Arnold displays little remorse for her role in the devastation. Instead, she’s happy to be a free woman again, married to a trucker, John Woten, and reunited with her son, Josh, a teacher. “Of course, I had some friends who got hooked on my meth, and they went down the tubes,” she says. “Yeah, I probably ruined a few lives. Sometimes I feel guilty. But I made millions of dollars and I had a blast doing it.”

Today Arnold’s existence is far more subdued. “I much prefer living a straight lifestyle,” she says. “Now if I buy an end table for my apartment, it means much more. Money meant nothing to me back then.” The biggest excitement of late was when the B.B.C. expressed interest in making a movie based on Methland. “I don’t know who would play me in a film, but let me say this: The actress will have to be smart—and very good looking!” she laughs. “There may be others today doing what I did, but there will never be another character like Lori Arnold.”

But for now, she is sentenced to eight-hour days working in the call center. “Sometimes I hate it,” she says with a sigh. “I make sales calls all day and often people swear at me, or even threaten me on the phone. But when they hang up on me, I just have to laugh—because they obviously don’t know who they’re talking to.”

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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.