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Full Review
book cover
by Nick Reding
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 7/31/2010

Growing up in a small Midwestern town in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can imagine how a switch from the prevailing recreational drugs of that time—weed, acid, mushrooms, quaaludes, and alcohol—to today’s meth/alcohol mix is a big step down. Small towns frequently have high rates of drug use, but the heavy pot and psychedelic use of an earlier era didn’t give rise to nearly as many people setting themselves on fire, blowing up their houses or trailers, or losing their teeth, minds, relationships, and lives. Life in a small Midwestern town during the 2000s seems grimmer by an order of magnitude, though as Nick Reding explains in Methland, meth may be more symptom than cause of this decline.

Methland explores the ways in which the methamphetamine “epidemic” has affected small-town America, by focusing particularly on the Iowan town of Oelwein. Reding, a native Midwesterner, befriends a number of individuals in Oelwein (a doctor, a prosecutor, a policeman, and a handful of meth users) and tries to track their progress between 2005 and 2008, corresponding, he says, to the peak of the Midwest’s meth epidemic. He also explores the nature of small-scale meth manufacturing (“batching”) and the larger meth trade run first by locals in league with Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTO), and then by the DTOs themselves. A short history of meth describes how a cheap drug suited for those working long hours at mindless manual labor is not coincidentally more popular during tough times. The socioeconomic and cultural aspects of the epidemic are explored here in abundant detail, more so than in other works on contemporary drug epidemics like In Search of Respect by Philippe Bourgeois or Dark Alliance by Gary Webb.

The strength of the book is Reding’s willingness to honestly describe the characters he has befriended or is associating with; through relating their individual struggles and efforts, Reding presents a generalized picture of the travails of living in a small Midwestern agricultural community. Combining the personal with the political, Reding also discusses methamphetamine in relationship to the material conditions that affect those living in a small town, particularly how agricultural corporate consolidation and the poor economic conditions caused by decades of outmigration and neoliberal economic policies have devastated these communities, thus leading to more people desperate enough to become addicted to meth. He also traces the way in which the pharmaceutical industry fought against regulation of ephedrine and pseudoephederine, setting back law enforcement efforts to stem meth manufacturing by limiting essential ingredients. He discusses the physiological and psychological aspects of meth addiction, though not as comprehensively as I would have liked. He relates a number of horrific anecdotal stories about meth users and crimes related to meth use, as well as giving a good sense of the personal and community tragedies meth addiction has led to.

The results are depressing, if compelling, leaving the reader with increased compassion for individuals on all sides—the users and addicts, the dealers, local law enforcement, and the communities that must cope with the effect. At times the book seems a bit too personal, or overly compelled to tell us more than we need to know about some of the (non-meth-using) protagonists or the history of this or the other small towns of the Midwest, and there is more autobiographical detail of the author’s life than is necessary. I would have liked to have learned more about the small-scale meth dealers of the Midwest and their replacement by the Mexican cartels, which now dominate the trade—though such research is undoubtedly difficult. And I would have liked to have heard a lot more from a greater sample of local meth users themselves. But these are small criticisms. Methland is an engrossing portrait of a community and perhaps an entire way of life in deep decline, and a warning of what we can expect should our economic policies continue to turn middle-class communities into poor ones.

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