America’s Industrial Drug

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I recently called an older Minnesota dairy farmer in an attempt to track down a young guy he had been mentoring the past couple of years. It seemed the phone number I had for the younger farmer no longer worked. There was a good reason. “I think he’s back into the meth,” the older farmer told me. It was a sharp reminder that, as Nick Reding’s Methland argues, methamphetamine is the kind of industrialized pharmaceutical plague that has hit farmers and other rural residents particularly hard.

It’s  fitting that the older farmer used the term “into” to describe his young mentee’s relationship with meth. That’s because it isn’t just the kind of drug you’re “on” with the possibility of jumping “off” anytime you want—it absorbs every fiber of your being.

I’ve long been aware of crank’s ability to wreak havoc on lives and communities. When I was in high school in the late 1970s, meat packers and truckers from my hometown were using it to help them work double shifts and stay awake to party off the stress of the slaughterhouse or the open road.

For years, some young guys renting a farmhouse just up the creek from our farm were referred to dismissively as generic “druggies” by people in the community. We didn’t know what they were doing in that house, and we didn’t want to know.

Then one night the farmer who owned the house was called out to the place. He arrived to find one of the renters on the roof, tearing off shingles in a manic rage. “I’m making holes so Jesus can come into my living room and talk to me,” he told the farmer. “Jesus came onto my TV and told me to do it.” He had been tweaking for days.

At least two friends from my tiny high school graduating class (29 people) have gotten deeply “into” meth over the years. One pulled a gun on another friend of mine while on crank and the other has served prison time for manufacturing it with her husband. Yet another school chum got busted for stealing anhydrous ammonia, a major corn fertilizer that happens to serve as a key ingredient in some forms of meth. I also have family members who have fallen prey to the drug. One cousin is known around town as a “helluva worker” when he’s cranked on meth. When he’s not, he sits on an old car seat at the local co-op eating chips.

My hometown, once a thriving farm community that for decades served as a key turnaround spot for the railroad, is now the site of regular meth lab busts. (In case you think meth has disappeared from the scene because you hear of fewer busts, that’s just because the big drug cartels have all but taken over the business from the small-time cookers. The result is the busts are fewer, albeit larger.)

The scourge of drug abuse is nothing new in our society. Urban areas, suburbs, exurbs, uptown, downtown — no geographic location or demographic make-up seems immune. And drug abuse is not just an American thing. I’ve seen addiction’s burnt path from here to southern Africa.

But it’s been argued that meth is “the most American drug,” and that even more specifically, it’s a perfect fit for Farm Country. Crystal methamphetamine has been around in various forms for a long time, but it was in the 1980s and 1990s when it really took off in rural parts of Minnesota and Iowa. Reding argues convincingly that it’s no coincidence that this is the same period the big meatpackers were becoming even bigger, and they were using their monopolistic clout to bust what remained of the unions.

All of this put even greater pressure on workers who had went straight from high school to the meat plants. They worked longer hours for less money on production lines that had been sped up and de-skilled (Eric Schlosser describes this “McDonaldizing” of meat processing particularly well in Fast Food Nation).

What better way to keep up than by working like a fiend? And meth was the perfect fuel for working harder, longer and with fewer worries about how monotonous the task had become.

Reding describes the meatpacking life of Roland Jarvis, a resident of Oelwein, Iowa, who eventually blew up his mother’s house while cooking meth: “On days that he worked back-to-back shifts, Jarvis had a trick up his sleeve: high on crank, with his central nervous system on overdrive and major systems like his digestive tract all but shut down, Jarvis could easily go for sixteen hours without having to eat, drink, use the bathroom, or sleep.”

The reason meth is so dangerous is it’s associated with something rural Americans take great pride in: the ability to work hard. “It’s one thing for a drug to be associated with sloth, like heroin,” writes Reding. “But it’s wholly another when a…narcotic exists in a one-to-one ratio with the defining ideal of American culture.”

Combine that with the fact that meth is literally a homegrown product one can make cheaply in a basement or barn, and it’s a perfect fit for rural residents who pride themselves on self-sufficiency.

Meatpacking and meth seem to go together—the owners of those plants may not condone use of the drug, but they certainly have benefited from the short-term boost in productivity it generates. It’s no accident that when immigration officials converged on the Agriprocessors meat plant in Postville—just up the road from the town Reding’s book focuses on—it came to light meth was supposedly being manufactured right in the building. With turnover in these plants at sky-high rates, who cares if a tweaker burns him or herself out in a matter of months? There are always more unskilled bodies to come.

In fact, meth abuse has become common anywhere humans are pushed to work unnaturally long hours just to get by. That makes it a perfect fit for all aspects of our industrialized society‚ including agriculture. And, as my conversation with the Minnesota dairy producer reminded me, farmers aren’t immune either.

It makes sense: as the industrialization of agriculture has made it increasingly difficult to make a living just raising crops and livestock, farmers are forced to take jobs in town. The farming gets done at night, on weekends—all those in-between times when the human body is supposed to take a break from work. Tweaking, at least temporarily, can help farmers defy the laws of nature.

A leader in the sustainable agriculture movement recently expressed dismay to me that a review of Methland appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the Land Stewardship Letter. He felt it was too negative of a subject to cover in a publication dedicated to showing how sustainable food and farming systems can present a positive alternative to the industrial model.

I disagree. Anything that makes it harder for farmers to devote themselves to careful management of the land is a major barrier to attaining a truly sustainable agriculture. Industrialized ag is just such a barrier, and meth is one of the elements helping to prop it up.

Crank, like any other input that allows us to temporarily mask the unnatural effects of industrialization, has no place in the future of our farms and rural communities. We must deal with it. And in order to deal with it, we must take on the forces that seem to make it a necessary part of so many hardworking people’s lives in the first place.

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