Subgenre: Current events, memoir, social issues
This book does two things. One, it looks at a period of three years (2005-2007) in the life of Oelwein, Iowa, a rural community devastated by meth like so many other rural areas. Oelwein is not just hurt by meth. A depressed economy, consolidation in agriculture and pharmaceutical industries, and people leaving all serve to devastate the town. So, Reding shows us the town and its suffering in a direct, open, and honest way. Two, he goes on to look at the larger national picture. For example, how intense lobbying by Big Pharma basically went on to enable the meth makers and their businesses by facilitating the availability of raw materials needed to make meth.
The book is definitely a must-read. Reding creates a narrative that goes from small town to national levels and back to small town seamlessly. He dispels common myths about meth in rural America and shows that meth is not just a "rural problem." The prose is easy to read and engaging. We see the problem not as something abstract and distant but as a problem affecting human beings. From the town mayor engaged in a titanic struggle to revive the town and its economy to the local district attorney who often prosecutes the same individuals over and over, to the addicts and meth traders, this is a story of people. It is in those human stories that the strength of the book lies. However, the author has also done his research, and you can read about it in the "Note on Sources."
This is one I am giving 5 out of 5 stars.
Librarian note of books similar in appeal factors that I have read:
- Dave Cullen's Columbine. (link to my review)
- Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus. (link to my review)
Some of my reading notes from the book:
- Reding went to Oelwein, and then to places such as California, Idaho, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, and Missouri, small towns and big cities, in order to give us context for Oelwein and the meth problem, a problem that even draws from places as far away as China. It documents the death (and rebirth) of the town and the birth and life of meth. We learn that small town America is not really the idyllic place many people think it is, but it neither a wasteland or just flyover country.
- I barely recall this, but methamphetamines were at one point prescribed for things like weight loss, even as recently as the 1980s.
- The drug became in large measure something for workers in jobs such as meat packers to be able to stay awake and work the long, exploitative, low pay hours such industries are known for.
- Connection to illegal immigration. Meth networks through illegal immigrants, including those who work at places like meat packers who are notorious for hiring workers with no strings, so to speak. At least until the meat packer closed due to consolidation in the industry.
- Lori the meth entrepreneur before meth got much more industrialized at one point was more than just a drug peddler. She owned multiple businesses and her operation employed many people. "She donated plenty of money to the local police and to the county sheriff. She planned to open a day care center and video game arcade next to Wild Side, so local kids would have somewhere to go while their parents were at the bad. Together, Lori and meth were an antidote to the small-town sense of isolation, the collective sense of depression and low morale that had settled on Ottumwa since most farms went belly-up, the railroad closed, and the boys at the meatpacking plant lost their jobs" (71).
- A big problem for the U.S., not just in this book, but in general if we are observant is what Dr. Douglass Constance, a sociologist from Sam Houston State U. sees of the U.S. as "psychological and not sociological nation." This means that "we will always hold the individual responsible over the group, blaming the drug addict instead of investigating the environment in which he grew up, and (conversely) celebrating the quarterback above the team following a win" (92). I am all for personal responsibility, but there has to be some consideration of other factors, especially when the odds are so heavily stacked against the individual. And by the way, I always do find irritating how a quarterback, or a coach, takes all the glory for a team without acknowledging the work of the team in getting that win. Coaches and quarterbacks would be nothing without the rest of the field players who make it happen. By that token, perhaps the meth problem would not be as acute if social and environmental conditions did not make it so easily available to make and sell and did not drive people to desperation due to corporate greed and consolidation that puts people out of honest work.
- The complicity of Big Pharma: "What came into view is that pharmaceutical industry lobbyists had blocked every single anti-meth bill in the last thirty years with the help of key senators and members of Congress" (107). Now, don't blame it all on Big Pharma. The legislation Congress did make was not always the best. Locally, towns like Oelwein resorted to local laws and ordinances that often violated civil rights all for the sake of eradicating the meth problem. A lot of people did a lot of things that were either not too bright or just not things to be proud of for the sake of fighting meth. As for Big Pharma: "'It's blood-money,' says Loya [law enforcement agent]. 'That's all it is. The drug companies don't care that you can treat a cold without pseudoephedrine, or that pseudo isn't a cure for cancer. Medically, it's a useless drug. Economically, though, it's a gold mine. Looking at thirty-five years of this debacle, you can't help but see how things work in this country" (254).
- Book also worth reading to get a good understanding of how the centralization and consolidation of the food and agro industries played a role in the spread of meth as well. This is because once a big corporation, like Cargill or Monsanto, eliminates the competition, they then go after political power, start lobbying and buying influence in order to get favorable political decisions. The monopolies are back in force.
- Meth trafficking, and drug traffic in general, is like the flu. It mutates (which is why we need a new vaccine for it every year, by the way). "Drug traffickers stay around by making keys to government locks, at times before the locks are even thought of" (209). The DTOs are smart and dynamic; heck, they are better at planning strategy than the government ever will be. By the time the government locks something up, they already have a bunch of other ways to overcome or just flat out bypass whatever the government restricted. "All a drug needs in order to mutate is a body politic; the shift occurs where that body is weakest-- where unemployment is high and poverty is rife, and people are disabused of their marginalization, or their 'disconnectedness' from the core" (209). It is not just in places like Somalia or Yemen. It is right in small town America in places like Oelwein, Ottumwa, and El Paso, Texas.
- Oelwein does improve as the mayor, Larry Murphy, does manage to bring in some jobs. It is not completely saved, but as of 2009, when the author returns, it is a start on a good path.