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Author Paints Small Town's Struggle In 'Methland'

Jul 8, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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The small town of Oelwein, Iowa, is home to 13 churches, a refurbished Main Street and a new library with free high-speed Internet.

It is also home to Roland Jarvis, a former meatpacking worker who burned his house down in 2001. Jarvis, who had a methamphetamine lab inside, was hallucinating that he saw black helicopters hovering overhead and, in a panic, dumped chemicals down the drain. The home went up in flames, and Jarvis was burned so badly that he begged the police to shoot him.

Author Nick Reding tells Jarvis' story — and that of Oelwein and the infiltration of methamphetamine — in his new book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

Jarvis had third-degree burns over 78 percent of his body and spent three months in the burn unit in Iowa City, Reding tells NPR's Melissa Block. And yet, Reding says, the first thing he did when he got out of the hospital was smoke meth.

"He taught himself how to light a lighter with what was left of his hands and hold a pipe in his mouth," Reding says.

Jarvis' addiction encapsulates what has happened to many small towns in America. Reding says meth is a drug of the American working class, because it gives people "inordinate amounts of energy."

"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 come in handy, in terms of helping you to work harder," Reding says.

Reding says that the agricultural industry has consolidated over time, and the working class has had to work harder for less — which has made meth more attractive. As an example, he cites a meatpacking plant that was bought in 1987; the new company cut wages from $18 an hour to $6.20.

"If you're a guy like Roland Jarvis ... you've got to work extra hard to make less than you were yesterday," Reding says. "Meth is often seen as a helpful drug in that instance because you don't have to sleep. You don't even have to go to bed before working your next shift."

In the book, Reding describes how the town's police chief, county attorney, mayor and City Council decided to crack down by pulling people over for moderate speeding infractions.

"A lot of people were driving around cooking meth in their cars and trucks to disperse the smell," explains Reding.

People were also cooking meth in plastic Pepsi bottles strapped to the back fenders of their bicycles, so the council restricted people from riding their bikes downtown.

"I think it worked incredibly well," Reding says. "Their small-lab meth production plummeted to basically zero by sometime in mid-2006. To go from getting a lab every few days to having zero is a remarkable success."

But addicts are still using meth in Oelwein, Reding says. He estimates that 90 percent of the drug is brought in by trafficking organizations, which are "much more difficult to contend with" than local labs.

As for those critics who contend that the meth epidemic has been widely overblown, Reding says he never saw them while walking down the street in Oelwein or the places he reported for four years. He says what can be said is that the media have missed an important point:

"The point is not that people make it in their homes. The point is that it stands for something much bigger, which is the demise of small-town America."

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