Thursday, February 24, 2011

Meth: A global view of 'the most American drug'

A meth lab explodes: In some rural areas, the American dream also seems to be going up in smoke. (

From the Mideast to northern Africa and Wisconsin, extraordinary scenes of unrest are roiling the world stage. All of these political dramas stem from some of the same factors driving a methamphetamine epidemic in rural America.

People everywhere should understand that “our personal lives are tied to these tremendous global forces,” said Morgan Cloud, Emory professor of law.

Cloud is one of the founders of a new Emory course covering nearly every aspect of the meth epidemic. It brings together faculty and students from law, business, religion, economics, anthropology, biology, public health, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology and more.

The course takes its name, and built its curriculum, from the book “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” by Nick Reding. Through personal stories of people ravaged by meth, the author shows how 30 years of deregulation and globalization affected Oelwine, Iowa.

For more than 100 years, “there was no such thing as unemployment in Oelwine,” Reding said in a recent public talk at Emory.

The town’s long prosperity, built around farming, the railroads and meatpacking, began to change in the late 1980s. Agribusiness emerged to displace family farms. Local people no longer owned the land, the grain elevators or the stores where they shopped. A conglomerate bought up the meat packing plants, dissolving the unions: Workers who once earned $18 an hour were reduced to $5.60 an hour, without benefits.

The impact was “apocalyptic,” Reding said. A collective feeling of depression settled on the town. People fled in droves. Tax revenue dried up. Schools faced threats of bankruptcy and law enforcement staff was slashed.

Meth filled the vacuum, giving users the ability to stay awake through three shifts at the packing plant and make ends meet. “It’s the most American drug,” Reding said. “It helps you achieve the dream of superseding class through a lot of hard work, and you feel good while doing it.”

Other forces also fueled the drug epidemic and the changing way of life, Reding said. “Big pharma” lobbied against laws to change the ingredients of common cold medicine, used to make meth. Immigrants poured in to take the low-paying jobs. Five Mexican cartels took over 85 percent of all the U.S. drug trafficking business, channeling their distribution into the flow of immigrants.

When his book was published last year, Reding said he received death threats, and accusations that he had betrayed America. “A lot of people seem to resist the idea that drugs and poverty could go together in rural America the way they do in the inner cities.”

Reding, who teaches journalism at Washington University in St. Louis, is working on a new book, "Heartland," a portrait of what the Midwest might look like in 40 years.

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