Wednesday, July 29, 2009

'Methland' could be any small town, anywhere

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 22, 2009)

A few years ago, the Sheriff's Office in Multnomah County in Oregon released a series of mug shots of meth addicts in an attempt to document the toll the drug takes on the human body over time. The photo series -- now called "The Faces of Meth" and available at DrugIssue/MethResources/faces -- has become iconic enough that Nick Reding references it several times in his recent study of Oelwein, Iowa: "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town."

Nearly always adding the adjective "infamous" to his description of the series, Reding uses the reaction to "The Faces of Meth" as an example of national media's belated obsession with meth problems in the heartland during the middle of the decade -- an obsession that seemed to dissipate almost as quickly as it began.

Wielding the observation by Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett that Americans tend to seek psychological explanations -- rather than sociological or philosophical explanations -- for the world, Reding challenges the national media for ignoring the explosion of meth in the 1990s and failing to observe how the destruction of small town America provided the socio-economic fissures that allowed for the growth industry of meth production and distribution.

Long known as a working class drug -- one that offers enough of a boost to help workers clock in an extra shift for overtime pay -- meth use was common even back when meat-packing plants and other industries offered wages and benefits that workers could build a life upon.

When the nature of meatpacking plants changed in the 1980s and wages dropped drastically to barely more than minimum wage -- with little or no benefits for all the body-breaking work -- it's not surprising that workers began looking to make extra money by selling the drug they previously had consumed. Nor is it surprising that a growing number of these "Beavis and Butthead" producers would look to save costs by setting up small production labs in basements, cars and -- in Oelwein -- even bicycles.

As if that wasn't enough, then add the circuit created by out-of-work Iowans in the '80s and '90s who moved out West and sent back fresh meth supplies. And then add Mexican migrants who brought with them new supply and distribution routes from the south. And suddenly it becomes clear that all the sociological stars were aligned to push Oelwein past the tipping point to become better known as "Methlehem" or, as Jay Leno reportedly once called it, "the worst place in America."

It's this broader sociological convergence that Reding desperately wants his readers to grasp. (And for good measure, he also throws in how Big Pharma's lobbying efforts for decades have maimed effective federal regulation of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other basic components of meth production.)

Of course, this sweeping sociological perspective would make for very dull reading if Reding didn't explain how these forces bear down in individual people. "Methland" becomes such "must read" -- heralded in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal -- because Reding presents such a huge cast of well-drawn characters:

• Clay Hallberg, the Oelwein doctor who first turns Reding onto the sociological and philosophical cancer that meth represents for his patients and his community.

• Nathan Lein, the local prosecutor whose caseload is filled almost exclusively with meth-related crimes.

• Jeremy Logan, the Oelwein police chief whose aggressive "assume everyone is guilty and put the screws to them" methods basically ignore civil liberties while effectively closing down meth houses.

• Larry Murphy, the Oelwein mayor who bets his re-election on his redevelopment schemes for the town's dying downtown.

• Lori Arnold, the Ottumwa-based sister of actor Tom Arnold, who set up one of the largest meth production and distribution empires in the Midwest.

• And a secondary cast of addicts, sellers and customers who provide their own perspectives on the sociological morality play Reding describes.

Critics complain that Reding gets a little preachy at times. But Reding's detailed explanation of how what happened to Oelwein could happen to any small town -- indeed has happened to far too many towns that, unlike Oelwein, have yet to start reversing their decline -- makes it hard to image any tone other than exasperation when explaining why so little has been done for so long.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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