Author Paints Small Town's Struggle In 'Methland' In his new book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding describes how methamphetamine transformed the town of Oelwein, Iowa — and how the town attempted to combat the epidemic.
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Author Paints Small Town's Struggle In 'Methland'

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Author Paints Small Town's Struggle In 'Methland'

Author Paints Small Town's Struggle In 'Methland'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The town of Oelwein, Iowa, population just under 7,000, is home to 13 churches, a refurbished Main Street, a new library with free high-speed Internet. Oelwein, Iowa, is also home to Roland Jarvis, a former meatpacking worker who burned his house down in 2001. He was hallucinating that he saw black helicopters hovering overhead. He dumped chemicals down the drain in a panic, and the home that was also his meth lab went up in flames. He did, too.

The story of Oelwein and its infiltration by methamphetamine is told in the book "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town." The author is Nick Reding, who joins us now. And Nick, this is an excruciating story of what happened to Roland Jarvis, burned so badly in that fire that he was begging the police to shoot him.

Mr. NICK REDING (Author, "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town"): Yeah. I think he had third-degree burns over 78 percent of his body, and spent three months in the burn unit in Iowa City.

BLOCK: And when you meet him in 2005, Roland Jarvis is still smoking meth even though he…

Mr. REDING: Yes.

BLOCK: …pretty much has no fingers left from because of what happened in that fire.

Mr. REDING: Yeah. In fact, he said that the first thing he did when he got back to Oelwein was to do meth, and he sort of taught himself how to light a lighter with what was left of his hands and hold a pipe in his mouth.

BLOCK: And what you learned in Oelwein is that there were many Roland Jarvises -maybe not to quite such an extreme degree - but that methamphetamine had completely taken over this small town. How is it that possible?

Mr. REDING: You know, I think that there's a couple different facets of it, and part of it is that meth has for a long time been sort of the drug of the American working class. It's a drug that gives people inordinate amounts of energy and doesn't - you don't have to eat, sleep or drink water. So if you're somebody who works on a manufacturing line or does farm work or meatpacking work, for instance, it's a drug that can sort of come in handy, so - in terms of helping you to work harder.

Given the fact that making an honest dollar in places like Oelwein has gotten harder over the years through the consolidation of the agriculture industry, there's been more of an onus placed on having to work harder for less. I think that that contributed greatly to the attractiveness of methamphetamine.

BLOCK: Yeah, you tie the rise of meth in this town directly to what's going on with farming, with big agriculture, consolidation of industry, as you just mentioned.

Mr. REDING: Yeah. The principal industries that made rural America strong, almost all of those have been diminished to the point, or been consolidated to the point that there's very little money left in that. And yet you have these places that are still left. And what do they do to be able to survive?

BLOCK: One of the big industries in Oelwein, traditionally, was meatpacking. And what did you hear from people there, who worked as meatpackers, about what had happened with consolidation and wages?

Mr. REDING: Well, at one time, there was a meatpacking plant there owned by a company called Iowa Ham. This would be back in the '70s, in the '80s. And back in 1987, you could make $18 an hour. That's good money; that's enough for a lower-middle-class living. Eventually, and I think about '92, the plant was bought by Gillette, and wages went from $18 an hour to, I think, about $6.20. And then the plant was bought a couple more times throughout the course of the next five to 10 years.

So, if you're a guy like Roland Jarvis and now you've got to work extra hard to be able to make less than you were yesterday, meth is often seen as a very helpful drug in that instance, because you don't even have to go to bed before working your next shift. Eventually, a guy like Roland did the math and he said, well, I can either keep working twice as hard for a third of the money or I can just start making it myself - and I will make a lot more money.

BLOCK: Make a lot more money by manufacturing meth.

Mr. REDING: Right.

BLOCK: You do describe that the police chief is able to make a pretty big dent in what's going on, at least with meth production in Oelwein. What did he do?

Mr. REDING: Right. Well, it's a little bit like what happened with Giuliani in New York City, and Bratton, I think, was his police chief, anyway, but to not let any small things go unnoticed. Meaning, you know, if somebody is speeding just a little bit, than that constitutes speeding, so let's pull them over and use that as a legal excuse to see what's in the car. Because what was happening is a lot of people were driving around cooking meth in their cars and trucks to try and disperse the smell, the ether smell that comes from making meth.

A lot of people were riding bicycles around with the same idea, cooking meth in plastic Pepsi bottles that they had strapped to the, like, the back fender of their bicycles. So the city council said, well, you can't ride your bike downtown anymore.

BLOCK: And did it work?

Mr. REDING: I think it worked incredibly well. Their small-lab meth production plummeted to basically zero by sometime mid-2006. So to go from getting a lab every few days to having zero is a remarkable success.

BLOCK: But meth use is clearly still going on in Oelwein, Iowa.

Mr. REDING: It is. And I think that's where you have to look at the Mexican drug-trafficking component of all this. When you take away the ability to make the stuff in your house, you're not taking away people's addiction to it. All you're doing is opening up the market to the trafficking organizations. Those are much more difficult to contend with.

BLOCK: What would you say to those who have reported in recent years that the meth epidemic was wildly overblown, contributed to this sort of frenzy of panic about meth.

Mr. REDING: I would say that I never saw any of them when I was walking down the street in Oelwein - or in any of the other places that I spent four years going back and forth to. The thing that the media could justifiably be criticized for is missing the point with meth. The point is really not entirely that people make it in their homes. The point, I think, is that it stands for something much bigger in American culture, which is the demise of small-town America. So, in some ways, I think the criticism that meth has been overblown, that misses the point in the same way that media attention to the drug has been missing it all along.

BLOCK: Well, Nick Reding, thank you very much.

Mr. REDING: Thank you.

BLOCK: Nick Reding is the author of "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town."

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