The Social Determinants of Crank

In 2005, Newsweek printed an article called, “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” Newsweek's coverage followed an Oregonian series called "Unnecessary Epidemic." Media outlets across the United States began reporting on the spread of what the United Nations drug control agency declared "the most abused hard drug on earth": methamphetamine. Early 2005 also saw Nick Reding begin to investigate the effects of meth on small-town America. Four years of interviews and investigation produced Methland:The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

Reding begins with a good overview of what meth is chemically and historically: first synthesized in Japan in 1898, desomethamphetamine made its way to the US in the 1930s. There, in the last year of that decade, it began to be marketed as Benzedrine.
Methamphetamine in 1939 was prescribed as a treatment for thirty-three illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, the common cold, hyperactivity, impotence, fatigue, and alcoholism. In a world in which the winners were defined by the speed with which they could industrialize. meth suppressed the need for sleep, food, and hydration, all the while keeping workers "peppy."
The Nazis used meth to keep their soldiers marching through a Russian winter. Into the 1980s, meth was still being prescribed as a diet aid in the US. And above all this, it made users feel better than they had before taking the drug.
In biochemical terms, methamphetamine is what is called an indirect catecholamine agonist, meaning that it blocks the reuptake of neurotransmiters.
Essentially, meth makes you feel very good, and keeps you feeling good, until it wears off. The problem, of course, is the side-effects (several of which meth was supposed to cure): paranoia, sleeplessness, psychosis, anxiety, memory loss, and rather quickly, total addiction. The drug hijacks the brain's usual neurotransmitter cycle and very soon "the only thing that does feel good is more meth."


"In truth, all drug epidemics are only in part about the drugs. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. The rise of the meth epidemic was built largely on economic policies, political decision, and the recent development of American cultural history. Meth's basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade. Along the way, meth charts the fears that people have and the vulnerabilities they feel, both as individual and as communities. The truly singular aspect of meth's attractiveness is that since its first wide-scale abuse — among soldiers during World War II — meth has been associated with hard work. For seventy years, the drug more commonly referred to as crank had been the choice of the American working class."




The condition Reding found most salient in the rise of meth abuse in central small-town America was the loss of good-paying agricultural jobs, as farms and processing plants were swallowed up by huge corporations. Companies like Tyson and Cargill busted unions and drastically reduced both pay and staff. People now how to work twice or three times as long to make the same wage as before, if they can find a job that is. Many residents of small towns were left in poverty and misery. Moreover, they felt usurped from the few jobs available by illegal immigrants, usually Mexicans, who will work for even less pay, in more unsafe conditions. (Illegal immigrants are the perfect workforce for a profit-first company, because they have absolutely no recourse when treated unfairly.)
But there's also a more subtle connection between meth, immigration, and the food industry. That relationship is driven by the conceit that drugs, like viruses, attack weak hosts. Or, to put it another way, narcotics and poverty — along with the loss of hope and place[...] — mutually reinforce one another.


Meth isn't simply a kitchen-sink, home-made issue. When the Combat Meth Act went into effect in 2006, there was a measurable decrease in small time makers and dealers (calculated by the number of meth labs busted by police). However, this just let Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) take over production and distribution, and they now supply "95-100 percent of the meth now consumed in the United States." Unlike cocaine and heroin, the DTOs can control every step of the meth supply chain.
Unfortunately, the same American immigration policy that provides a low-wage workforce ideal for the food industry is what keeps the DTOs in business. [...] [T]he interests of the DTOs are aligned with those of the likes of Cargill and ADM.


It's not just big agribusiness that's helping meth take over. Both pharmaceutical and retail giants have a hand in keeping a main ingredient in meth, pseudoephedrine (usually found in cold pills like Sudafed), easy to get. Neither want stricter controls; change forced from the outside generally means expenditure. Reding also notes that systems put in place to track who is buying cold pills are extremely easy to circumvent: since the bigger retail chains like Target and CVS don't pay their employees much, it's pretty easy to bribe them to look the other way while cold pills disappear from the shelves.

Methland's narrative unfolds through limited biography. Most of those profiled are residents of Oelwein, Iowa, including its mayor, police chief, and a second-generation doctor. A good portion of the book shows the steps residents take in trying to fight the decline of Oelwein, of which meth is only a symptom. However, I couldn't get the story of one of the addicts out of my head. Roland Jarvis, high on his own supply, sets his mother's house on fire while making meth. He goes in and out of the house, feeling no pain high on crank and adrenaline, trying to save possessions, and put the fire out with buckets of water.
Following one of his trips outside, Jarvis looked down and saw what he thought was egg white on his bare arms. It was not egg white; it was the viscous state of his skin now that the water had boiled out of it. Jarvis flung it off himself, and then he saw that where the egg white had been he could now see roasting muscle. He looked as hid legs and hid abdomen. His skin was dripping off his body in sheets. [...] He'd have pulled the melting skeins of skin from himself in bigger, more efficient sections, but for the fact that his fingers had burned off his hands.
Reding meets Jarvis five years later, and notes how he is able to light foils of meth with the stumps of his fingers.

America prefers to see drug addiction as "a psychological rather than a sociological" problem. In keeping with the American bootstrap mythology, meth addiction is an individual's problem, even though that same drug enabled people to work longer and harder in decades past. (This approach is also seen in shows like Intervention which put the onus of addiction solely on the individual, or the family, rather than the wider societal conditions.)
[M]uch of meth's danger lies in the drug's long history of usefulness to the sociocultural and socioeconomic concepts American society holds dear, many of which stem from the pursuit of wealth through hard work.
Having read Methland I'd say that the pursuit of wealth at all costs also contributes to meth addiction; not by the wealthy, of course, but those the corporate overlords have crushed along the way.

Phil Price, a state investigator working in Georgia, puts the meth problem succinctly: "[N]one of this is about a drug. It's about a system of government and an economy." Reding illuminates the many causes behind the popularity of meth for a certain subset of Americans, by showing how corporate lobbies and drug cartels control the conditions of people so many thousands of miles away. Methland is an important book, not just about drug addiction and manufacture, but about how the decisions made for people, far away from them, can tear individual lives and whole communities apart. The collateral damage of greed lines the streets of places like Oelwein.

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