From the San Francisco Chronicle

Although the scourge of methamphetamine production and usage has beset San Francisco and other major metropolitan areas – federal law enforcement agencies conducted a meth sting in San Francisco as early as 1959 – when Nick Reding decided to write a book about the deadly, illegal narcotic, he decided to build the saga in the small towns of Iowa and Missouri.

A decade ago, he started visiting the Midwest frequently; he wanted to write about methamphetamine (often known colloquially as “crank”), and “everybody knew” that small-town Missouri had sadly become the meth capital of the universe, followed by small-town Iowa. Although Missouri towns figure prominently in “Methland,” Reding sets the primary narrative in the Iowa towns of Oelwein and Ottumwa.

Reding returned to Oelwein, population about 6,000, over and over, hanging out with the local physician who treated meth addicts and their damaged offspring; the police chief whose stopped motorists on the slightest pretext, looking for those transporting meth-making ingredients; the prosecutor who cut deals with the criminals or took them to trial in an overloaded criminal justice system; and the elected mayor trying to replace shuttered storefronts with new businesses amid the fear of violent meth users and sellers plus undocumented migrant workers finding their way to town.

The book almost featured a California setting, Reding discloses. Early in his research, he drove around the Central Valley, ending up in San Jose. “I didn’t know what I was looking at when I saw how some of the canals in the most isolated parts of the valley ran red,” Reding says. “Later, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent told me that, in addition to providing water for the most prolific farm country in the nation, the canals were dump sites for red phosphorous from meth superlabs hidden among the orange and pecan groves.”

Meth can be made on a small scale, in a kitchen sink, for instance. The key ingredient can be extracted from over-the-counter cold medicine pills that sell as Sudafed and NyQuil, among other brand names. Meth is highly addictive. Used frequently, it destroys teeth, compromises physical health, causes all sorts of delusions and leads to criminal acts among users desperate to purchase more. Small-scale meth makers too addled to follow basic precautions sometimes blow up homes, poison children and fire upon law enforcement officers.

Because investigative journalists like Reding yearn to convey the big picture that explains the small-town microcosms, they look for patterns. Meth production and distribution has become part of a multinational business culture different from Monsanto or Wal-Mart only in the nature of its ultimate product. Kitchen-sink meth makers sometimes grow to integrate their operations vertically and horizontally until they become cash-flow conglomerates.

Reding demonstrates such growth with the unforgettable example of Lori Arnold in Ottumwa, Iowa. Arnold was already a shirt-tail celebrity before becoming a meth corporate queen – she is the sister of Tom Arnold, the actor formerly married to comedian Roseanne Barr. The ease with which Lori Arnold grew her business while eluding law enforcement for years is astounding. A key part of her operation revolved around undocumented immigrants to the United States, many from Mexico, employed primarily in meat-packing plants and other exploitative industries in towns such as Ottumwa. Those immigrants could smuggle meth ingredients to Arnold, create a customer base among plant workers, and create logjams within small-town police departments.

As Reding notes, putting together the pieces for his readers, the Lori Arnold saga “highlights the overlapping paths of the food, pharmaceutical and illegal narcotics industries in the United States.”

By knowingly employing undocumented laborers from Mexico plus Central and South American nations, meatpackers and other industries locating in the United States enable meth sellers to smuggle product, then sell the crank to be used as a psychological escape by poorly treated plant workers. By opposing legislation in Congress and state legislatures to limit imports and suspicious retail purchases of cold medicines, pharmaceutical companies have frustrated law enforcement efforts to shutter meth labs.

Given the intransigence of corporations that influence legislators with steady campaign contributions, Reding wonders if the meth scourge will ever end.


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