Tara's Reviews > Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Methland by Nick Reding
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's review
Dec 02, 2009

really liked it

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Nick Reding puts all of the pieces together in an excellent investigative book that exposes the complex and seemingly unstoppable forces behind the epidemic, while also revealing its human cost through individual stories that will make you hurt. If you grew up in a small town, you know these people.

The heartland's struggle with meth addiction is largely rooted in a cataclysmic shift from small farm and ranch operations to corporate-run centers of mega-production. Animals are raised in centralized factory pens, fattened in giant feed lots, and slaughtered in megalithic processing plants. Grain production has been centralized on huge corporate farms where food is planted, harvested, and processed under the supervision of agribusiness giants like Cargill and Monsanto. This shift has devastated the morale and pocketbook of rural America. Former independent entrepreneurs have been reduced to the status of easily replaceable wage slaves. Local packing plants that used to pay their employees twenty dollars an hour plus health benefits have been absorbed by mega corporations that pay six dollars an hour and no benefits to a workforce that is powerless to demand anything better. Anyone who toured the Midwest farming country during its heyday, which peaked in the mid-1970's, would be shocked to witness the grinding poverty that permeates its small towns today.

The issue of poverty drives the meth market in multiple ways. The ingestion of meth can temporarily alleviate the depression and hopelessness of a single mother who just completed a double shift slitting chicken bellies at the local Tyson plant. The production of meth in rural basements, a relatively simple but risky endeavor, is a cottage industry that offers low startup costs and large returns to those meth cooks who manage to avoid arrest or incineration. Poverty and lack of decent employment tend to drive rural youths to the West coast and California, where their habit eventually hooks them up with big-time distributors who in turn employ them to funnel meth back to their home town in return for a cut of the cash and goods.

To make matters worse, large processing plants and pig farm factories actively solicit Mexican citizens to cross the border and work for subsistence wages ("First 6 months of housing provided free!"). Although the vast majority of these workers are husbands and fathers desperate to provide a higher standard of living for their families, a fraction of this workforce is inevitably involved in siphoning drugs from Mexico into Small Town, USA.

Corporate culpability doesn't end with agribusiness. Big Pharma has used its massive economic power and lobbying skills to fight meth regulation at every turn. Why waste a relatively modest sum of money adding an element to cold pills that will render them useless for meth making when only half of that sum can "convince" Congress to avoid requiring the additive at all? After all, they argue, they make a legal product for a legal purpose. Why should they have to spend one penny because some societal misfit may personally choose to commit a criminal act? Why indeed.

Ironically, one of the final reasons for meth's prevalence in the heartland is the work ethic of its people. Most drugs don't help work performance. Mention "severe drug addict" and most people envision a lethargic, unemployed couch surfer who lives off friends and relatives until they finally throw him/her out. In contrast, meth (at least initially) boosts concentration and energy, allowing the user to work two and three jobs, performing for weeks with minimal sleep until the inevitable crash. Small town rural people who pride themselves on hard work and self-sufficiency often succumb to meth as a temporary way to "hold it all together" while they work through a financial crisis (divorce, sick child, loss of benefits) that requires them to work long hours without relief. Temporary use is seldom temporary for long.

I've laid out the general framework of Nick Reding's book, but the real power of his work comes from personal interviews and the hard-to-hear stories of working people who have been destroyed directly or indirectly by the meth trade. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand meth addiction and, more importantly, the largely unreported societal malaise that is sapping the life from rural America.

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