Why Small-Town America Is Drowning in Drugs - Page 2

By Jeff Deeney 01/26/12

America's heartland has been battered by a tidal wave of crystal meth and prescription pills. Nick Reding, the best-selling author of Methland, explains why.

The remains of a meth lab in Independence, Mo. photo via 

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Deeney: How did Oelwein get its meth problem under control?

Reding: Basically, the mayor, the police chief and many members of the community got together and said, "Our number-one problem is not methamphetamine but the fact that our economy is in tatters." In order to start turning that around, they recognized that they had to lure companies that will pump money back into the system—but in turn, one of the biggest obstacles was being known far and wide as a meth town.So in that context, they dealt with the only part of the problem that they had the authority and power to control, which was the small-time manufacturer.

Oelwein cleaned up its own back yard. They put a lot of law enforcement focus into it, and at one point they were busting two or three meth labs a week—in a town of 6,000 people! Since then, they’ve been able to add more than 500 cops—one for every eight or ten people, which is huge for a small town. But the drug-cartel part of the supply problem is too overpowering—nobody’s going to get a handle on that.

Deeney: How would you rate the federal response to the meth epidemic?

Reding: Ever since Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 [which regulates mail order and chemical companies selling precursor chemicals], the federal government has done nothing at all. In fact, it has never done anything very effective to combat meth, and the state governments have actually done even worse. In fact, taken as a whole, the response has in many ways made the business easier—at least the business of producing and selling it.

Deeney: How about the growing popularity of bath salts—the synthetic version of methamphetamine. Bath salts may be even more toxic than the real thing. Have they been taken up out there?

Reding: I don’t know, to be honest. But I can think of a funny analogy: This bullet is more deadly than that bullet, but when either one hits you in your head, they will kill you.

Deeney: Are you working on a new book?

Reding: Yes, it’s kind of a follow-up to Methland, about what the Midwest will look like in 50 years. I’m taking the long perspective because, as I said, I learned while doing Methland that the meth problem was really 40 years in the making—at first slow, then very fast.

The new book is called Heartland and is set in seven towns that I think are indicative of each region and where the whole middle of the United States is heading in this century.

Deeney: One of the great questions about street drug culture is why meth never took hold in the big urban centers of the East Coast. Even as the drug plowed chaos across the Midwest in the 2000s, it barely reached North Philly or the South Bronx. There are a couple theories who: The black and Latino drug crews, who have a stranglehold on the city’s drug corners, may be  trying to prevent new drug they don't have a monopoly on from entering the marketplace; or maybe the media-forged stigma of meth as a hillbilly drug for poor rural whites made it seem alien to inner-city addicts. There's still time for meth to take hold, of course. Where do you see the meth problem in 50 years?

Reding: You know, I haven’t focused on meth so much yet because I’m working on the large trends of economic and cultural decline.
But one thing I can’t turn away from—it’s kind of like a car accident—is that the pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists now have carte blanche and play an even greater role in how legislation is written.

Every time a state or federal legislator attempts to introduce a bill that would restrict the over-the-counter sale of cold drugs, the pharma lobbyists come in and just tear the legislation apart. So you can still buy over-the-counter cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine and make crystal meth in your bathtub.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs biweekly in the The Fix.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.