[Crossposted from New Books in History] In 1980 I left Kansas to go to college in Iowa. A lot of things caught my attention about Iowa, for example, that the people really are very nice. I also noticed that there were a lot of drugs. One of them was “crystal methamphetamine,” or “crystal meth” for short. I’d never heard of it before (which is not surprising), but I quickly learned that, while not as fashionable as coke, it was inexpensive and widely available. Lots of people did it. It made them feel good. I left Iowa in 1984 for California, and with it any thought of crystal meth.
“Crank,” however, remained, ever ready to make people feel good when they had nothing much to feel good about. And as Nick Reding explains in Methland. The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Bloomsbury, 2009) America’s midland didn’t have much to feel good about in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Globalization was hammering the industries that had long supported places like little Oelwein, Iowa, the subject of Reding’s attention. Light manufacture, meatpacking, and agriculture were all in decline. Wages were dropping, poverty rising, and people were leaving for the coasts (as I had). Misery loves company, but there was less and less company to be had in Oelwein. Misery, however, also loves drugs, and there was plenty of meth to go around thanks to a peculiar alliance between: 1) big pharma–which opposed any legislation to limit the sale of the essential over-the-counter ingredient in meth; 2) south-of-the-border drug cartels–who took said over-the-counter ingredient and made massive quantities of meth; and 3) some down-on-their luck Iowans–who arranged for the import of said drug. In some ways, meth did what it was supposed to do: it made sad people happy and tired people strong. But it also destroyed the lives of users, their families, and their communities. The bi-costal press reported that the hicks of flyoverland had been possessed by a new kind of “reefer madness.” The rest of the story–globalization, lobbying by big pharma, the drug cartels–it missed for the most part. Nick Reding didn’t, and we in Iowa owe him a debt of gratitude.
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