From the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

Conventional wisdom says that the illegal drug methamphetamine (usually shortened to “meth” and colloquially known as “crank”) is destroying lives, breeding crime waves and unraveling the socioeconomic fabric of entire towns, especially in the rural Midwest. Meth can be produced in something as unobtrusive as a kitchen sink; the key ingredient can be extracted from over-the-counter cold medicine.

For folks like me, who live outside the drug culture, the conventional wisdom has sounded intriguing in a depressing way. But I had never truly grasped the real story until reading Nick Reding’s “Methland.” By practicing immersion journalism in two Midwestern towns, Reding makes the destruction come alive. Meth is no longer an abstraction for me.

The towns are Oelwein and Ottumwa, Iowa. By hanging out day after day, week after week, month after month, Reding won the trust of meth producers, sellers and users along with law enforcement personnel and elected officials trying to salvage their formerly peaceful way of life.

Reding grew up in St. Louis, but left at age 18. He became a published writer and settled in New York, as so many writers do. But he started making frequent visits back to the Midwest to study the scourge of meth. He makes himself a character in his book, composing much of it in first person. His own saga about winning trust wherever he goes gives an otherwise loosely structured book a mostly cohesive narrative thread.

Because investigative journalists like Reding want to convey the big picture that explains the small-town microcosms, they look for patterns. Reding shows that 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 and 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. 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 comedienne Roseanne Barr.

Lori Arnold increased her drug business while eluding law enforcement. A key part of her operation revolved around illegal immigrants to the United States, many from Mexico, employed primarily in meat-packing plants. Those immigrants could smuggle meth ingredients to Arnold, develop a customer base among plant workers and create logjams within small-town police departments.

Arnold accumulated so much cash that she purchased a night club to launder the money. She also bought a home and a fancy car. In 2001, she sold meth to an undercover police officer. Her prison term ran until 2008. According to Reding, Arnold settled in Arizona last year, but failed a mandatory urine analysis, resulting in strict probation. Whether Arnold will re-enter the meth business is impossible to predict.

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

Despite the grim subject matter of Reding’s book, he fell in love with Missouri. Last year, he and his wife decided to make St. Louis their home.

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