From the Hartford Courant

Not until the epilogue of Nick Reding’s “Methland” do we learn that Phil Price, a former special agent, backed by a SWAT team, had to talk down and arrest a friend of 20 years, who was newly addicted to methamphetamine and had holed up in a motel room with his 9-year-old son as a hostage.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised, having already read Reding’s account of a toddler named Buck, who, when taken from parental control by Iowa‘s Department of Human Services and local prosecutors, turned out to have hair-cell follicles bearing the highest traces of methamphetamine in state history. No. 2 on the list was his half-sister. They suffered because their father used the microwave not only to prepare their food but also to heat coffee filters used in making the drug, traces of which contaminated the food.

“Methland” is the story of a different kind of drug war: one waged closer to the bone in rural America than in urban centers. One involving a drug widely prescribed historically, as an appetite suppressant and anti-depressive. One that might have been thwarted legislatively but for lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry. (Reding’s documentation of this is solid and shocking.) One that moved into a social vacuum created by farm closures, a downward spiral in wages at food-processing plants and accompanying depopulation. One centered on an illegal substance that can be made by any neighbor with fertilizer, cold pills, a couple of other essentials “and a ninth-grade knowledge of chemistry,” Reding points out.

Although Reding’s book presents the town of Oelwein, Iowa, as a case study and focal point of his narrative, he has also traversed much of the country investigating the national contours of the problem, and returned with a nuanced, important report. Meth is probably the only widely consumed illegal narcotic that “might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational,” Reding notes, because it enhances endurance and has a history of use by workers, often those pulling multiple shifts. An additional difference is that its production stems both from small-batch local producers and from large drug-trafficking organizations.

“Viewing meth as a crime story vastly oversimplifies the problem,” Reding warns, even as one of his prominent sources, Nathan Lein, who hails from a farm family and was assistant prosecutor for Fayette County (in which Oelwein is situated), estimated that better than nine-tenths of his caseload was related to the drug. Yet Reding concentrates more broadly on the social tissue of Oelwein and nearby towns, to illustrate many troubling factors that along with meth have shaped the Iowans’ lives, and he often weaves into his first-person reporting the insights of various social scientists.

Wide public alarm over meth emerged sharply in 2005 and 2006—indeed, a story in Slate magazine showed that more than 70 locales had been labeled “Meth Capital of the World” by U.S. newspapers in that stretch—but Reding chronicles a long incubation period that preceded it. Since the early 1980s, three out of four farms in Fayette County had gone out of business, reflecting a trend throughout rural America. By 2006 the local Tyson meatpacking plant closed , a devastating loss in a town whose population was less than 7,000.) Consolidation in agribusiness represented a wider trend in the Midwest, changing small-town life, and “into this vacuum” came the production and distribution of methamphetamine.

Reding’s analysis is encompassing and compelling; it is not, however, highly encouraging. He illustrates the shortcomings of the Methamphetamine Control Act passed by Congress in 2006 and the shortsighted assessment emerging in 2007, both in the media and by government, that the worst was over: It well may not be. And he details the steady struggle in Oelwein, which has made some significant progress but whose “vulnerabilities are Iowa’s vulnerabilities, and America’s.”

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