I live in Ohio, a state where the Attorney General has declared a heroin epidemic. My county is no exception. The possession of heroin cases in Common Pleas Court have skyrocketed from about five in 2012 to around 50 in 2016.
But heroin, is just one of the drugs the county deals with — meth has been in the region for years and it does not appear to be going away. In August, 2015 there were nearly as many meth cases (based on the presumption that the ‘manufacturing’ indictment is for meth production) as heroin — three versus four respectively.
When a community is hammered by drugs, typically thefts or burglaries rise as addicts seeks ways to fund their habit. In this regard, Preble is, again, no exception. In August, 2015 the grand jury handed down seven theft-related indictments.
Meth Nearly Destroys Iowa Town
In Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, author Nick Reding examines a small rural, agricultural-based town in southeast Iowa which is about the same size as my hometown. The tale, mostly about the town’s (Oelwein) triumph over meth is an interesting read as it lays bare the wide-ranging reasons for the epidemic.
Three of the reasons are: political indifference, corporate irresponsibility and the myth of the American Dream.
What may be most troubling about the meth situation is it never had to happen. As the author details in the book, research to create an alternative to pseudoephedrine — the chemical extracted from Sudafed to manufacture meth — was halted as in 2000. Before 2000, two approaches were being pursued that could have eliminated the ability to extract meth from Sudafed. The first was a chemical ‘mirror’ alternative to pseudoephedrine that eliminated the stimulant effect — making it worthless to the meth industry. The second approach was to use additives that blocked the ability to extract pseudoephedrine from cold tablets.
In the end, much like with the current heroin/opioid situation, Big Pharma’s profit potential influenced politicians to take a hands-off approach to regulating the industry — siding with business at the expense of American communities.
As president Calvin Coolidge famously said, the business of America is business — and this holds true even when it destroys livelihoods. Part of Methland deals with Ottumwa, Iowa where the meth trade skyrocketed in the late 1980s — making Roseanne’s Barr’s former sister-in-law Lori Arnold a very wealthy woman (and eventual felon). Arnold became wealthy by distributing meth to an ever-increasing base of factory workers.
When large companies, like Cargill, acquired food processing plants in the region, one of their first lines of business was to slash wages from about $18 an hour to $5. Workers, forced to work double shifts or take on a second job to sustain their earnings, turned to meth for the energy to get through the extended work week.
The companies also began actively recruiting immigrants, mostly from Mexico, to take jobs at the plant. The influx of immigrants, some with a direct line to the Mexican meth industry, increased the drugs presence in the workplace.
Today, with president-elect Donald Trump riding to the White House partially on the immigration issue, it remains to be seen if he will address one of the reasons illegal aliens are here. As Reding points out in the book, U.S. companies recruit inexpensive, illegal foreign labor and then hide behind legalities. Under U.S. law, companies are not responsible for knowing whether a worker is in the United States legally. They bring them here — and pretend to not know how they showed up. The scam has played a role in perpetuating an anti-immigration stance among Americans whose misdirected anger exists because they do not realize companies in their community caused the problem.
The American Dream
A significant portion of the book deals with Arnold who, within months of entering the Ottumwa meth business, becomes a very wealthy individual. Arnold looms high above the other small-time meth manufacturers featured in the book. But even the small time players create a significant cash flow because they have a captive market base — people working 60-90 hours weeks just to stay ahead of the economic curve.
The book is worth reading simply for Arnold’s story.
Even though the story is empathic to Arnold, and the other large and small time dealers, it does not shy away from what they are or what they do. It is very much a ‘warts and all’ type of tale. But, a bright side to the story does exist. It is seen mostly through the major of Oelwein, a progressive determined to purge his small town of meth while also returning viable jobs to the region. He takes some big gambles — and in the end they pay off.
It’s an approach small towns in the Rust Belt would be wise to follow.
The book’s strength is the author’s many observations, including one about the American economic system. Reding posits that our economy is proving the theories of Karl Marx to be more accurate than Adam Smith’s — noting that even the agricultural industry is being cannibalized by a handful of companies. This handful of large companies control the lion share of the market, pushing small farmers to the brink of extinction, destroying local economies in the process.
One small way this is seen, he notes, is the disappearance of locally-owned grain elevators. Under locally-owned systems, every dollar created through the sale of grain generates another three to four dollars in local transactions, Reding explains. This keeps small economies thriving.
Today, though, grain is typically owned and handled by one seed company and the dollar transactions are reduced to a 1:1 ratio, eliminating any local upside. This guts the local economy often causing family-owned grain elevators to close. It happened in the Iowa town — and in my community as well. The grain elevators that existed in the village of West Alexandria and the city of Eaton closed years ago.
In Eaton, a Dollar General store sits where the former grain elevator operated.
Rated 5 out of 5: The book is fairly short, very well researched and a nice blend of investigative journalism and personal essay writing.