Book Review: Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

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I think the AMC television show, Breaking Bad, is probably the reason I added this book to my to-read list. And the vague sense that much of the violent crime that happens in Madison is somehow related to meth. A few years ago, I watched the Frontline documentary, “The Meth Epidemic”, and remember being horrified. But beyond that, I don’t know much about the ‘meth epidemic,’ and thought I’d check it out.

Nick Reding focuses his book on one town, Oelwein, Iowa. He has family connections to Iowa, which is part of why he picks his locale. Also, he hooks up with a doctor in Oelwein who describes the meth epidemic in social and cultural terms, rather than medical or biological ones. One researcher he interviews talks about the ‘social identity’ of meth as especially dangerous, because it evolved as a drug used to do two of the things that are right, smack dab in the middle of our American value system–looking pretty and working hard. Meth has been prescribed to mostly women to help them lose weight and was used by all kinds of working class folks to help them work long hard hours in jobs like trucking and factory work.

Reding admits that originally he set out to write a true crime book, but quickly realized this was a different kind of story. I think he’s right. There’s a famous sociological study done by Howard Becker called, Becoming a Marihuana User. Becker did his study back in the 1950s, when pot was a lot more stigmatized than it is today. Think the movie Reefer Madness, which is kind of hilarious. Becker studied pot smoking among the group who was mostly smoking back then, jazz musicians. He was interested in whether there was a genetic predisposition to becoming a marijuana user. Because he’s a sociologist, he found, not surprisingly, a sociological answer.

In order for someone to become a marijuana user according to Becker, they had to meet three conditions. First, the person has to learn how to smoke pot in a way that will produce effects. For example, that you must inhale pot smoke into your lungs and hold it in order to get high. Second, a person must learn to recognize the effects of smoking pot. The way you’re giggling hysterically at Beavis and Butthead? That’s part of what it means to be high. Third, you have to learn to enjoy the sensations of getting high.

Now, like much sociology, at first glance you might think to yourself, “Wow, that’s stupid.” Who wouldn’t enjoy the sensations of getting high? And I would answer, my paranoid friend in college who used to rave about the aliens who were coming to get him when he would get high. And anyone else you’ve ever met who doesn’t smoke pot because it makes them paranoid or they feel like it just doesn’t do anything for them. All of these steps are social, and happen in the context of experienced users who teach you how to get high, what it means to get high, and convince you that getting high feels good. So what Becker contributes to the study of drug use is its deeply social aspect. This is what Reding’s researcher means by the ‘social identity’ of meth. It reached so far as a drug in part because of the ways in which it fleshed with our cultural values.

And also, of course, because like many drug epidemics, it prayed on a group of people who were already being beaten down by society. In the case of crack, it was mostly inner city African-Americans. For meth, it’s mostly poor, rural white folks. Reding figures out that the story of meth is also the story of the demise of rural America. In Oelwein, it was no coincidence that the meth epidemic bloomed right about the time the local meat packing plant was bought out and lowered wages from $15/hour to $6/hour while cutting benefits. Reding suggests interesting connections between the consolidation of agriculture in the hands of a few large mega-corporations like Cargill and Tyson and the consolidation of the meth trade in five or so Mexicana drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). And then when the few businesses left in rural towns like Oelwein start recruiting Mexicans workers, they create an easy route for meth to cross borders.

The story of meth as a sociological story is a really interesting one. I wish Reding would have written a book that was tighter and more coherent in the telling of it. He gets distracted by ‘characters’ in the form of individuals in Olwein. There’s nothing wrong with using individuals; Eric Schlosser does it really effectively in Fast Food Nation to tell the story of the rise of fast food in America and its consequences. But Reding gets off track, veering into their personal lives in a way that doesn’t seem to have much to do with meth. And while he traces the outlines of the connections between meth, the demise of rural America, and illegal immigration, it’s a twisted and tangled story rather than one that glides along.

Methland answered a few of my questions about meth, but it raised a whole lot more. Somewhere inside all the research Reding collected, and some he did not, is a really fascinating and great sociological study of meth and what it tells us about contemporary culture. I’m hoping someone writes it soon.

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