Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book traces history of methamphetamine in the Midwest through Oelwein and Ottumwa, Iowa

The rise of methamphetamine, that most rural of manufactured drugs, began in part because of "the crumbled local agricultural economy" around the southeast Iowa town of Ottumwa in the late 1980s, Nick Reding writes in the new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. Or so says reviewer Charles Homans in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly.

"Falling tax revenues had left local law enforcement underfunded, understaffed, and unable to stop" Lori Jane Arnold, who built the first midwestern meth lab in Ottumwa and set up a distribution system, Homans reports. "Hard-up fertilizer suppliers and farmers were happy to cut deals on large volumes of anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer ingredient that is also used in meth processing."

Reding "wants to situate the meth phenomenon as part and parcel of the broader economic and social forces that transformed the rural Midwest, in often wrenching ways, in the late twentieth century," Homans writes. "The drug’s Middle American evolution, he argues, was a basically rational product of a global economy that in many respects has not been much more forgiving to rural America’s residents than the drug trade."

The small town in the book's subtitle is not Ottumwa, population 24,000, but the former meatpacking town of Oelwein, pop. 6,700 and 150 miles north. "Reding’s group portrait of Oelwein’s residents is nuanced and complex in a way that journalists’ depictions of the rural Midwest rarely are," Homans reports. "Unfortunately, Reding pushes the big-think conceit of Methland a bit too far, trying to fit drug traffickers in a geostrategic context as a sort of geographically dispersed 'disconnected state,' drawing strained parallels between Mexican drug cartels and American pharmaceutical companies, and generally struggling for a unified theory of 'the meaning of meth'." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 21: Tim Egan, Outposts blogger and "op-extra" writer for The New York Times, likes the book and quotes Reding as saying meth is “the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational.” It's a stimulant, not a narcotic, but the point seems well taken. (Read more)

1 comment:

Jay Rau said...

Meth has been doing a number on small towns for some time now. I'm sorry to say that I helped destroy Sioux Falls, SD about 14 years ago. Thankfully I got busted by the DEA and went to prison for it. The feds said that crime rate went up over 300 percent during the time my meth was going there. Just a few small labs can destroy a good part of a community. I now give back by working in recovery.