On the shelf: Methland, by Nick Reding

November 12, 2009

In 2006, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act as part of the Patriot Act. By then, methamphetamine abuse had grown quickly in the public imagination from a B-list drug problem to an epidemic. Meth was causing serious problems—some obvious and others less so—all
over the country. CMEA helped control the retail sale of meth
ingredients such as pseudoephedrine (nasal decongestant). But was it as
helpful in combating these problems as congressional fanfare indicated?

Nick Reding spent an extended period of time in the small town of
Oelwein, Iowa, before and after passage of CMEA. In Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,
he tells the story of the town's intertwined histories with economic
depression and meth. Reding takes the time to get to know a number of
the major players: the meth cooks, traffickers and addicts; the mayor,
prosecutor and doctor. He profiles these individuals with empathy and
respect, as well as tremendous journalistic insight.

Before CMEA,
the police were busting local tiny-to-medium-scale labs on a regular
basis. The book's most haunting episode tells of a cook who blew up his
house, melted off much of his face and begged the cops to shoot him.
After the law passed, much of this drug-production activity ceased, and
with it the sense of national emergency. But meth use didn't take
the same hit, as Reding learned on a return trip to Oelwein. Cracking
down on small-time cooks in the States didn't end the demand for their
products, and larger producers in Mexico were happy to pick up the

Methland closes with Oelwein slowly, hesitantly on the mend. Reding, who acknowledges that the town's comeback has continued, has taken heat
from area residents accusing him of factual errors and sensationalism.
But Oelwein aside, Reding's analysis of the far-reaching causes and
effects of meth is persuasive and sobering, and his portraits of people
and places are engrossing.