Why Small-Town America Is Drowning in Drugs

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 

In his best-selling—and uncannily prophetic—2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, author Nick Reding compared crystal meth to a “sociocultural cancer.” The easy-to-make stimulant can spread with the speed and destructiveness of a disease, but curiously, it can take many years to take hold, like a cell mutation triggered by decades of bad decisions. The subject of Reding's book was a struggling town in Northern Iowa called Oelwein, home to a population of 6,415. A once-wholesome community, Oelwein had fallen on hard times during the past decade, when the collapse of its industries—including many family-run farms—threatened its citizens livelihoods as well as their way of life. In classic post-traumatic stress mode, Oelwein fell victim to the crank epidemic, becoming a midwestern focal point for speed dealers.

Reding spent years reporting and writing Methland, which struck a chord in a nation experiencing a painful recession. He pointed out how economic problems had spurred towns like Oelwein to become unlikely centers of the drug trade. A sizable percentage of the town's citizens ended up becoming addicted to meth or pills. Others were engaged in manufacturing or transporting illegal drugs.

To mark the recent paperback release of his book, Fix columnist Jeff Deeney talked to Reding about the current state of Oelwein and similar towns across America. Deeney works as a drug counselor in inner-city Philadelphia, where he regularly witnesses what life is like for the dealers and addicts who remain invisible to most of us. Like Reding, he has witnessed first-hand the toll that America's declining economy has taken on the underclass, who have increasingly come to view drugs not just as an escape but also as a rare avenue of opportunity. The two writers talked recently.

Jeff Deeney: Have you been back to Oelwein since the book was first released? 

Nick Reding: Yes. Several times. The paperback version of my book has a new afterwards about my first visit back, when I appeared at a town hall meeting at which a lot of local people got a chance to vent their spleen at me. There had been a big uproar after Methland was published because many residents felt that I had maligned their town, sensationalizing it, painting things blacker than they were. I got death threats and all kinds of negative stuff. So we all needed to take a few hours to clear the air. It was not a particularly great experience, as you can imagine, but at least the death threats stopped. 

Deeney: How have things changed there in terms of the meth problem and the local economy, the two main subjects of your book?

Reding: Both have gotten better—against all odds—given the collapse of the financial markets and the continuing recession. For some reason Oelwein has bucked the national trend. They’ve also moved their meth problem in the right direction. The down side is that all the problems that were plaguing hat town have moved across the street and down the road—the same poverty, crime, drug addiction, and at the same order of magnitude.

Deeney: Methland tells the story of the meth epidemic through its effect on several townspeople, including some who were dealers and addicts. What's happened to them since the book came out?

Reding: Some of them are doing quite well. I’m still in touch with Lori Arnold, who is Tom Arnold’s sister and the biggest meth dealer in the history of the Midwest. She went to prison twice for manufacturing and trafficking. She’s now out of prison, married, lives in Arizona, and as far as I know she’s clean and doing fine. There’s a guy named Major in Independence, Iowa, who rode in a bike gang. When I checked in with him last year, he'd been clean for about three and a half years. So that’s all good news.

The argument I make in the book is very simple: The harder it is for people to make money honestly, the easier it will be for an increasingly large portion to chose to make it dishonestly.

Deeney: In Oelwein you observed the hopelessness that comes in the wake of the collapse of industry and the middle class, and how it's linked to crystal meth trafficking and addiction. Over the past year, the Occupy Wall Street movement has appeared, dramatizing the enormous inequality of wealth in this country. Methland highlighted this development several years before it became a political issue. Have you given any more thought to how the chipping of the wealth upward may impact communities and drug problems?

Reding: The economic decline, which seems so recent, has actually been building in the Midwest and most of the country for nearly 40 years. When there are fewer and fewer people who benefit from the wealth that exists, and growing numbers of people are losing their jobs, their houses and their sense of middle-class security, you have what economists call a death spiral.

The recession also sucks revenue out of the stream, so not only do towns  lose jobs, they also lose the related businesses—the café, the car shop, whatever—that benefit from a strong economic environment. You also lose social services, which is no small matter. The number of cops arresting meth makers and dealers decreases, and so does the number of social workers and drug counselors who deal with the meth addicts.

This was the dynamic that played out in Oelwein and then, tragically, went national. But the economic crisis has reached the point that the question isn’t who’s the bad guy and why did this happen, but what do we do about it?

Deeney: In Methland you describe labor conditions at the local poultry factories, where people work under crazy conditions pulling incredibly long shifts, wearing giant chain-metal suits in sub-freezing temperatures. You show how these conditions helped foster the use of crystal meth. And not only the use. Compared to the local poultry factories, the prospect of selling meth can look pretty attractive, even with all of its legal and ethical risks.

Reding: The argument I make in the book is very simple: The harder it is for people to make money honestly, the easier it will be for an increasingly large portion to chose to make it dishonestly.

Deeney: The same problems are happening in the inner city, of course, where one of the very few ways to make a lot of money is by selling drugs. Unfortunately, it's a career path that usually leads to prison or the grave before the big score.

Reding: When people lose 66% of their paychecks overnight at a local meat-packing factory because cheap immigrant labor from Mexico is available in substantial numbers, the shock waves that result are not just local and immediate—they quickly spread out in time and space. It takes a long time for people to figure out how to overcome that kind of a cataclysmic shock to their system, and during that time they have to find a way to survive. They have daily needs to meet, so they may start selling drugs. Meth is the easiest drug to sell because you can make it yourself and do it pretty cheaply.

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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.