BY JEFF DEENEY The heartland as detailed by Nick Reding in his new book, Methland, is not your father’s heartland. Stripped of any means of getting ahead by multinational agribusiness conglomerates, many residents of Smalltown, USA are using crystal meth to cope with endless low-wage packing plant shifts and the despair that comes with poverty and social decay. Mexican drug trafficking organizations have capitalized on Big Agriculture’s need for a steady stream of illegal immigrant workers by flooding cornfields with high purity meth made in sprawling superlabs and carried across the border by the same workers who slaughter America’s pigs and harvest its crops. The result is a landscape dotted with sad towns like Oelwein, Iowa; stripped of tax revenue by an out-migration of skilled workers to more prosperous parts of the nation, burdened by soaring law enforcement and social service costs, Oelwein and its ilk seem past the point of no return. Recently, Phawker had a chance to sit down with Nick Reding to discuss how all this happened and what comes next.
PHAWKER: I work in the drug court, so I’ve done a little spade work myself. You note in the book’s introduction that you spent 4 years roaming the heartland, talking to people about meth, investigating for the book. It seems like you had a hard time connecting with a publisher for it. You noted that it was really hard trying to find someone willing to put this out, I’m wondering why you think that was?
NICK REDING: Well, I’ll tell ya it wasn’t just those 4 years. I’ve tried to sell this book twice and the third time someone finally bought it. Between ’99 and 2005, I tried three times and the third time it worked. Basically, I did the same thing in a town in Idaho that I did in Oelwein. I spent weeks in that town, I had all the characters. This was back when I was a lot younger, I was still working on my first book, I think it was a combination, to answer your question. Number one, it’s hard to get somebody to trust you to write a book, especially if you’ve never written a serious magazine article, which I had not done. It’s also hard for someone to get you to write a second book, when your first book sold only 3000 copies and went out of print after four years. But, I think there’s an additional piece to it, and it’s sort of summed up by my former agent’s reaction, and she said, “I will not even attempt to sell this book proposal because nobody knows what methamphetamine is and nobody gives a shit about it in the United States. And I think that was in about ’02 or ’03 and that was a New York agent and I had lived there for over 13 years and I think that that was very much kind of the feeling. I just don’t think that anybody cared.
PHAWKER: I guess this is a good segue into talking about Oelwein. I don’t think the average Philadelphian knows anything at all about Oelwein, Iowa.
NICK REDING: I would hope they don’t, that would be weird. Oelwein is a town of 6700 people that is in Northeast Iowa and was at one point sort of a mini-juggernaut in the region because they had a great economy between the railroad and the meat-packing plant and the farming industry it was a very relatively wealthy place that fell on hard times early in the 1980s beginning with a farm crisis and the demise of the railroad and the demise of the meat-packing plants. Everything that Oelwein had good went away. That is when methamphetamine kind of moved into the vacuum in force.
PHAWKER: And you are from Iowa yourself, correct?
NICK REDING: I’m from Missouri. My father’s whole family and my father is from Iowa.
PHAWKER: I see, is that how you came across Oelwein?
NICK REDING: No. Back to how the book sort of came into being, after not selling anybody on the town in Idaho then I tried to sell people on the town in Illinois and that worked, at which point the people in that town said that they didn’t want to be written about, and I had to find a new place. I ended up in Oelwein simply because I developed really good relationships with the people who would ultimately be the main characters of the book. But, you know, Oelwein is a long way from where a lot of people are from.
PHAWKER: One phrase that you come back to over the course of the book is this idea that meth is the most American drug, can you tell us what you mean by that?
NICK REDING: Yeah, because part of what that is about is that I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s a mania for hard work in the United States and that all good things will come through hard work. I consider [meth] to be the only vocational narcotic, meaning that the usefulness for the means of working long and hard is a part of its history. I mean meth was initially given to soldiers and manufacturing workers in the ‘40s and ‘50s for the very reason that you stay high for so long and that you don’t have to sleep or eat, which basically means that you don’t have to stop between shifts. So that’s part of the basis for why I keep calling it the most American drug. I mean, actually a Harvard sociologist sort of called it that, it’s not my term. But I think the reason it’s the most American drug too, is its place in the United States is so easy to link with large-scale trends in the last 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry, the agricultural industry and the progression of immigration in the United States and with all of the political decisions have sort of brought all of that together. When the dust all sort of settles, that is what methamphetamine in a small town is really about.
PHAWKER: You do have a larger hypothesis about how the meth epidemic came about, so why don’t we look at it one piece at a time. One aspect of it that you point out is the way that agribusiness and industry in the heartland has changed.
NICK REDING: Just to go back to the last question for one second, because I was really long-winded. The other reason I consider [meth] to be the most American drug is because I think it is a symptom of the larger stuff that we’re about to talk about. Meth is not the problem in Oelwein; economics is the problem in Oelwein. Meth is just a symptom of that. When farm crisis happened then places like Oelwein were severely weakened and so at that point, 2000 people of the 7500 that lived in Oelwein used to work in the meatpacking plant. That’s a staggering statistic. That’s not 2000 of the working-age people, that’s 2000 of the inhabitants. So when the farm crisis happened and a lot of people lost their land and the town lost their tax revenue, then the meatpacking plant also suffered and it was going to close. And that happened all over the world in the United States. When farming tanks, the related businesses have a very difficult time. So several meat-packing companies, sensing a good moment in which to sort of deprecate their competitors, went into these towns and said, “We’re gonna buy your meat-packing plant and keep it alive, but only under one condition: which is dissolve the union.” I mean what’s a town like Oelwein gonna say? “We’ve already been killed by the farm crisis and we’re about to lose 2000 jobs, so of course we’ll dissolve the union as long as you’ll take over our meat-packing plants.” So the day after they dissolve the union, they cut wages by two-thirds. So, imagine if all of a sudden there is 66% less money, I don’t know if the math was exactly that, but there is a huge decrease in your town over night and there is a huge decrease in tax revenue. So that essentially impoverishes a place overnight. So the double whammy of the farm crisis, plus this meat-packing deal, plus the railroad going out of business all at the same time, I mean it just ruined the town, and that is the story you hear in most small towns throughout the middle of the country, and it all started because these same meat-packing companies, Iowa Beef Packers, which eventually became Cargill and ConAgra and Swift, a bunch of meat-packing companies turned into like Ford which controlled the entire industry over a short period of time. The way that they did it was by taking advantage of the hard luck in these places and going in and buying these plants and dismantling the union, and so if you’re gonna make the argument that drugs followed poverty, then you say then why did Oelwein become impoverished? Well, there it is.
PHAWKER: So then that brings us to the other piece of the equation, which is the changes that are occurring in the pharmaceutical industry at the same time, could you talk about that a little bit?
NICK REDING: Yeah, same changes in the pharmaceutical industry in terms of conglomeration and just sort of vertical integration and one of the hallmarks of the American pharmaceutical industry is the production of cold medicine. And there is no other drug of the world that, like methamphetamine, the production of which is related one to one with an illicit and highly profitable drug. You don’t make cold medicine from coca; all you can make is cocaine. You can’t make cold medicine from poppies; all you can make is heroin. You can make methamphetamine and cold medicine from pseudoephedrine and as the pharmaceutical companies became more powerful, they had less and less reason, and became less and less willing to consider using different drugs from which to make their cold medicine. This allowed traffickers to, for a long time, procure huge amounts of pseudoephedrine in order to turn into methamphetamine; it wasn’t even illegal to do that. Even though pharmaceutical companies, dating back 20 years ago, could have started making cold medicine from a drug that you can’t make meth out of. But because they were becoming so powerful and they had so much money for lobbying, again and again and again over the course of 25 years, their lobbyists were able to defeat the DEA at every turn. Back to agribusiness just for one second, as that business developed, the means of keeping wages low became to essentially import illegal immigrants to work, and as the Mexican drug trafficking organizations were growing rich from methamphetamine production because they can control the whole business: manufacture, distribution, and retail. They’re growing rich off of methamphetamine because the pharmaceutical business is basically turning their head and allowing them to do so, even though the DEA is screaming about it, and at the same time they are expanding their distribution routes throughout the United States thanks to the same illegal immigrants that Cargill and Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland is encouraging and inviting and actually paying them to come to Oelwein, Iowa and a thousand places just like it to work in their meat-packing plants, so that’s sort of how it all rolls up into one.
PHAWKER: So now you have this supply of this incredibly powerful synthetic narcotic meeting this metaphysical malaise that’s left in the wake of the collapse of the industry and the rise of large agribusiness and you have people who are very poor and need to work very hard for the money they have who start to use meth both to make their lives a little more exciting and to get through a 16-hour shift.
NICK REDING: That’s exactly right, and to feel good about something, you know? I mean, people generally accept that drugs follow poverty, whether it’s in Camden or whether it’s in Compton, you know. There’s a hard time accepting that that happens in Oelwein, but in fact statistically it’s more true in Oelwein than anywhere in the United States. Because things, fucking suck and you wanna feel better.
PHAWKER: And the consequences that you talk about in the book are pretty staggering, as far as child welfare cases, the sheer magnitude of meth lab busts that are going on an annual basis in some of the states like Iowa and Missouri. For somebody like me, who’s fairly jaded when it comes to poverty and drug issues, I found that all to be pretty staggering.
NICK REDING: Yeah, and it’s still going on. And the thing is, you take all this big concept shit and the pharmaceutical industry and the agricultural industry and once that starts rolling, that really becomes part of the landscape and all it does is it magnifies the problems that are already there, because now not only do you have low-paying jobs and fewer of them that are sucking tax revenue out of these places, and not only do you have a pharmaceutical industry that is making it easier all the time for drug traffickers to make meth and distribute it, but you have real everyday consequences of chronic meth use, which only takes more money out of the community. I mean, these places they don’t have $5000 a pop to clean out meth labs, that doesn’t sound like a lot of money and in Los Angeles it isn’t and maybe even in Philly it isn’t, but in Oelwein that’s a lot of money, you know.
PHAWKER: Well, you see a very similar process that cities like Philadelphia went through in the ‘70s and ‘80s, just sort of sped up at this hyper-rapid pace of, first, erosion of tax base as more productive families leave, leaving behind some of the poorest people, and a lot of problems that tax the public, and it becomes this death spiral of needing social services and other taxpayer-funded services that there are no resources to fund.
NICK REDING: And so that’s it right there. You just described the last 15 years in Oelwein.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about some of the characters. There are a couple of characters in the book that are either very colorful or profoundly sad in some cases. The first is Roland Jarvis, why don’t you tell us who Roland Jarvis is.
NICK REDING: Roland is a former meatpacking worker who, like many people, did the math and said that, “I can either keep doing meth myself and working at the packing plant for a third of what I was making yesterday or I can start making the meth myself and selling it to all the other people who are gonna continue to work for a third of what they were working for yesterday, and I can make a lot more money.” And that is the story of the small-time meth manufacturer that sort of the fly in the ointment for Roland is that he blew himself up and lost the skin, essentially, on 78% of his body. He was essentially burned alive but somehow didn’t die and he ended up three and a half months in the burn unit at a hospital in Iowa, and as soon as he got home he got high.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I have to say that passage in the book is a pretty rugged reading. The amount of detail that you have, it paints a very compelling portrait of what has almost become a sort of stereotype or a joke, you know, the stereotypical crackhead or the stereotypical tweaker that blows himself up in a meth lab. But Roland’s story is really not funny.
NICK REDING: (laughs) Yeah, I wonder how many people maybe don’t even make it past that in the book and throw it out the window.
PHAWKER: (laughs) I initially wondered if that’s why you were having a hard time selling it.
NICK REDING: Yeah, well actually it took me a long time to put that in because everybody kept saying, “Oh you gotta lead the book off with the guy who blows himself up,” and I was saying, “Are you crazy?” You gotta work into that, man.
PHAWKER: A good way to segue into the next character is, why don’t you tell us what Tom Arnold has to do with America’s meth epidemic.
NICK REDING: (laughs) Tom Arnold is the brother of maybe the most successful Midwestern meth trafficker in the state, who’s name is Laurie Arnold. His sister Laurie was a trailblazing, meth industrialing, meth manufacturing, kinda genius, I’m sorry to say, who has been to federal prison twice, just got out of the second time and seems to be doing okay.
PHAWKER: And she was living a pretty high life there for a minute. So what does life look like for a big-time drug trafficker in a tiny little town in Iowa?
NICK REDING: Well life gets seen partly through a windshield of a Jaguar that Laurie was pretty darn proud of and that she’s still pretty darn proud of. Laurie’s specialty was connecting herself in Ottumwa, Iowa with the leading producers of meth in the world, at that point, which is not an easy thing to do because they were all in California and they were all Mexican drug traffickers, and Laurie figured out how to hitch her wagon to that game of horses. Then her other specialty was laundering the enormous amounts of money that she was making. I mean she was making like, Miami Vice fuckin’ money in Ottumwa, Iowa, and that makes you a pretty obvious gal about town.
PHAWKER: It’s hard to make that kind of money at the meatpacking factory.
NICK REDING: Exactly, it’s hard to make that kind of money doing anything in Ottumwa. In fact, it’s impossible, let’s be honest. So Laurie laundered it in many ways, but probably the most creative was she went into the horseracing business and bought herself a whole bunch of horses and a horse farm and a whole bunch of vehicles to get those horses from point A to point B. But what she was really doing is that she was using it to traffic a whole bunch of meth stuffed inside the horse trailers that were going from Ottumwa, Iowa all over, to the Dakotas and Nebraska, and down to Kentucky and Oklahoma, and out to Utah and Arizona, and she was moving it everywhere.
PHAWKER: Then she went to jail and what happened when she came home from jail the first time?
NICK REDING: Well, the first time these Mexican traffickers that she had gone into business with, as soon as Laurie was out of the picture, they moved right in and picked up where she left off and that is sort of the story of the sea change in meth trafficking in the United States in the 1990s. It was all completely taken over by these big trafficking organizations. So when Laurie got out she was very quick to perceive what had happened and basically get back right in on the business.
PHAWKER: You say in the book these Mexican drug trafficking organizations have a lot of resources on the other side of the border but then they get guys into these tiny little town in the Midwest and there’s a language barrier, and guys don’t really trust them, so was that Laurie’s niche?
NICK REDING: Yeah, it was. I think it’s fair to say in the middle ‘90s Ottumwa went from having a Mexican population of zero to having the highest per capita in the United States and that is all thanks to the Cargill meatpacking plant. I mean I’m talking about between 1987 and 2000. So when Laurie was out of prison in 1999, there was beginning to be a pretty healthy population of Mexican immigrants, but they were not assimilating very well, and that was as true of the traffickers. There were very few, but they were there nonetheless. And it wasn’t just your regular work-a-day people; Laurie’s sort of small stroke of genius was to, basically, sell meth on their behalf.
PHAWKER: So I have a couple of questions relating more locally to the region here. There isn’t much of a meth epidemic on the east coast. The east coast cities still struggle primarily with heroin and cocaine and the cities out west, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, have huge meth problems, I’m wondering if you have any idea what it is about the east coast that we just don’t do meth.
NICK REDING: It’s not that you don’t do meth, it’s just that the east coast is the last stronghold of the Colombian cartels. The Colombian cartels don’t sell meth, they only sell coke and they sell some heroin. The eastern drug trafficking market, and this includes everything south of the Carolinas, that has all been completely taken over by Mexican trafficking organizations and in fact the super-intense violence on the furthest, eastern-most point of the Mexican border in 2005, that was all about colonizing the southern part of I-95. After Hurricane Katrina, when things were such a mess on I-10 and I-5, that’s when the Mexican traffickers took advantage of the fact that they could start moving huge amounts of product into Atlanta, and from Atlanta they could take everything over up to Nashville and over up to the Carolinas. They made a big, big move on the Colombians at that point. But, they still have not figured a way into Philly and Newark and New York and Boston and Miami, for that matter.
PHAWKER: Well, the one anomaly there is that in the large northeast cities where there’s very little meth penetration, meth is huge in the gay population here in Philadelphia. I would say meth is the drug of choice in the gay community across all geographies in America. I’m wondering do you have any idea how that came to be? Why is the gay community hooked into the meth trade when it plays such a small role in the drug trafficking picture?
NICK REDING: You know, I can only hypothesize. One thing I would say, having lived in New York for a long time, is that there’s a deep connection between California and New York in terms of the gay community. It’s not like there’s a drug spread throughout the United States, it’s San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York, and meth is a west coast drug, historically. So, it’s reasonable to assume that the gay community, because there is a sort of a bi-coastal thing between the gay community. I think a lot of people move back and forth between LA and New York or San Francisco and New York, in the same way that Midwesterners who went to the labor markets of southern California in the’80s, got into the meth business and then got their people back in Nebraska and Iowa hooked that gays that got into the meth culture in the ‘80s, got people in New York hooked, or they brought it with them to New York.
PHAWKER: Now, in the book, you go into some of your own family history, and you talk about your father who came from very humble roots, managed to go to college and became very successful as an engineer and got a pretty high up position at Monsanto, and I’m wondering, how do you feel about that? It seems, in the book, that you’re pretty proud of your father’s achievements but at the same time when you’re looking at this larger picture of agribusiness domination of small towns in Middle America, it’s hard not to see Monsanto as in the middle of that whole transformation.
NICK REDING: Yeah, and I mean people from Austria to Australia see Monsanto as being in the very middle of that. You know, I mean I think that, for me when I first started making this book, for me it was all about people making a drug in a sink. I had no idea where it was gonna lead, and as I kept going, my idea was everybody that there is needs to be humanized or they’re not interesting, and as I got towards writing the ending of the book and personally, yes, I’m very critical of big agriculture and I thought, well, big agriculture has a face in my own family. If I’m gonna humanize everyone else, then I need do it with this too, and the obvious opportunity is with my own father. My feelings are, I am proud of him, and I’m proud of us. The irony is not lost on me that I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school had he not worked as long and hard as he did, but that to me just underscores the complexity of…everyone talks about big corporations, and they’re evil and stuff, but they’re still made up of human beings. My dad didn’t make all the decisions looking into a big, black crystal ball, figuring out how he could fuck Oelwein, Iowa (laughs). He made the decisions that somehow everybody does, and I thought that was important to show.
PHAWKER: So I guess we’re left with this picture of the Midwest dominated by this big agribusiness that is farming out these low wage jobs with no benefits to illegal immigrants while small-town America is just choking to death on meth smoke. I mean is Middle America just permanently fucked, or what is the way out?
NICK REDING: To me, and I don’t mean this to sound self-serving, but I would hope that this book or some thing would force people to talk honestly about what goes on. I don’t think there’s hope for any kind of change until people will…I mean I can’t even describe the frustration of interviews that I did with senators and congressmen who would sidestep all these questions about agribusiness, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration. I mean it was just remarkable. It was sort of like watching the best professional dancers in the world, you know they just “Whoop! That one went by me! Whoop! That one went by me!” If people would begin to talk honestly about how these things are related to one another, I think that would be a start. There is political precedent for this in the form of Theodore Roosevelt, and it’s no coincidence that the reputation he made for busting up the trusts was, largely, the meatpacking industry of the time. So I think that there is definitely hope, but I think that it’s very complicated to figure out what to do with a vast portion of the country that is getting less and less populous over time. That itself is a conundrum. That aside, I think that being honest about how these people are going to make honest money, it’s at least a start. But at least until then, I don’t see a lot to be happy about.
PHAWKER: What a way to conclude the interview, I guess, right?
NICK REDING: (laughs) Yeah.
PHAWKER: And on that really bright note, Nick thank you, I really liked the book. I thought it was one of the smarter approaches that I’ve seen, and I was definitely impacted by the stories. You know, I’m a social worker so I see the impact on the community here in Philly all the time, so I definitely connected with a lot of the stories you told earlier in the book about the DHS worker and the impact in the home, that was the stuff I really tuned into at first.
NICK REDING: Yeah, I mean I really do think there’s a lot that’s positive. Part of it is that people have to figure out what’s going on and I think this book makes it clear how all this stuff works together. The question is, is anybody really gonna pay any attention and really try to do something about it? I don’t know, man, I’m not someone who believes that people are just so cynical or so poorly motivated that nothing good can come of it. But I do think it’s complicated enough that it’s very easy to get sidetracked, and say, “meth is the problem”, but no, it’s really not, but anyway…
PHAWKER: Believe me, I understand, it’s the same way here with the black community in Philadelphia, you know, is cocaine the problem? Or is the school district the problem? Or is the ever-dwindling population of Philadelphia the problem? It’s very complicated. At the same time, it’s hard to nail down that central idea you have that there’s sort of this metaphysical despair that’s the real driver behind addiction. If these people still liked their lives, they wouldn’t be so compelled to destroy them, kind of thing. I see this all the time in my work when you have really absolutely no reason to value anything that’s going on in your life, it makes a five dollar bag of crack look very appealing, you know what I mean?
NICK REDING: Yeah, sure. I’m on the radio the other day and some guy said to me, “Roland Jarvis, he was a meth addict when things were still good at the meatpacking plant.” That is exactly right, to expect when things are good that nobody’s going to go get drunk or nobody’s going to go smoke crack or whatever. This is the point altogether. The question, to me is what proportion of people are doing it and how many motivations do they have to do these things? If you increase the poverty and decrease opportunity, you’ve got more reasons to go buy the fuckin’ five dollar bag, you know.
PHAWKER: Right. What’s always been apparent to me, most politicians, Republicans more so than Democrats but not exclusively so, ideology will always trump intelligent policy. It’s only the times when they sort of align that you actually get any movement forward. I think that your average Republican politician would love to continue to starve treatment resources while funneling money into law enforcement as much as possible even though that’s not necessarily a policy that has any sort of evidence in working to stem the drug problem. I mean, I work with the drug court here in Philly and it’s nice to be a part of something that you actually know it works. There’s research that says that what we do is effective in getting people to actually stop using drugs as opposed to just trying to incarcerate our way out of the problem. But, you know, it’s a hard sell for law enforcement types, for Republicans.