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An Alternate History of America's Meth Problem

An expert from the heartland thinks the crisis is overblown.

Before Americans were panicking about heroin, they were freaking out about meth. By now you've probably heard something about the drug and its litany of evils; even leaving aside pop culture phenomena like Breaking Bad, the stuff is everywhere—even in the occasional donut, some cops seem to believe. If you look hard enough, we are often taught by the press, you will find meth lurking in the Midwest, spreading like a plague across the Great Plains, lingering like a scourge in the decaying heartland of small towns nationwide. 

Of course, regular users of the drug, of which there are an estimated 569,000 in the United States, can suffer from addiction, anxiety, insomnia, weight loss, delusions, and other health problems; in 2009, nearly 100,000 meth users ended up in the hospital. Which is to say the drug does represent a genuine public health problem, one some supporters of President-elect Donald Trump seem to believe might be banished from America's rural idyls with his "big, beautiful wall."

But like most wars on drugs, America's Meth War has its detractors. Travis Linnemann has lived and worked in Kentucky and Kansas—prime meth country in the national imagination—all his life. A criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University and former probation officer, Linnemann has for decades wondered about two parallel realities of meth: the one he sees with his own eyes, and the far more sensational one depicted by police, politicians, and the media. 

Linnemann's recently-released book, Meth Wars, is an intrepid investigation into the stories that have been generated by meth fears and the reality of the drug and the harm it actually causes. He explores how the drug has been used to sew panic and injustice in communities already on their knees in what is by far the boldest deconstruction of the meth epidemic yet. I spoke to him about how and why, as it continues to cast a shadow over rural America, he thinks a meth chimera was born.

VICE: When did you start to question what America was being told about meth? 
Professor Travis Linnemann: I was a probation officer in Kansas when meth was a real hot-button topic in the late 1990s. It was consistently drilled into our brains that this was a threat, an emergency, and we needed to do what we could to address it. My job as a probation officer in mostly small towns in northeast Kansas involved lots of surveillance, high levels of drug testing and working with people who had a lot of contact with the criminal justice system. 

But the rhetoric I was getting from the state authorities and the news media wasn't matching up with my experiences. In the field I just didn't see it—I can't recall a meth offender ever being on my caseload. During six years of drug test results from the Kansas state database on the highest risk community based offenders, only 2.7 percent of all positive drug tests were for meth. Even the most recent figures show that police only seized 21 meth labs in 2014 in Kansas, and those include two-liter "shake and bake" soda bottles.

In your book, you describe the "meth imaginary." What is that?
It's the way that people imagine everyday life, their relations to other people, what they encounter on the street, through [the lens of] this particular drug. So, for example, someone sees someone who's particularly disheveled, who fits the "meth head" trope, and rather than maybe having some compassion for that person and thinking, "What's going on in their life, what makes them act the way they do?" they are just imagined as a degraded junkie. It enables us to ignore issues such as generational poverty, interfamily conflict, poor health care and all kinds of other things that go on in people's lives everyday. In the imaginary, they are just "meth heads."  

I don't want to disregard this as a completely mythical thing because there are people who have problems with drugs. But we imagine what's going on out there through the lens of this worst-case drug scenario. So someone with bad teeth, someone who broke into your car, is automatically a meth junkie. Maybe they don't have health care and eat a poor diet, maybe they don't have a job and are at the end of their rope. 

Meanwhile in the media, we live in a meth epidemic?
Every time someone is arrested for meth, it seems to make the news. For the book I spent a lot of time with police and they would always identify meth as their biggest problem, particularly in Kansas and Kentucky, I think because it legitimizes their work. A lot of times people disregard small-town police because they don't have real crime. Well now we have this discourse around the meth epidemic—on their minds, because of meth, they are finally real police fighting real crime. 

We've been seeing a lot of cell phone pictures and footage of zonked out heroin users in the last few months, among them a photograph released by police in Ohio in September. Does this remind you of "meth zombie" imagery and Faces of Meth, a project set up by cops in Multnomah County, Oregon, that aimed to deter meth use via graphic before-and-after mugshots?
Yes, it's the same thing as the "meth zombie" trope—it allows people to diagnose others as monsters. Faces of Meth is thrillingly voyeuristic for us all to gawk at, looking and judging people's lives…. "What a scumbag!" "How can they do that to themselves, look at their face!"

Maybe it makes us feel better to do this?
What these images do is hide longstanding social problems under the narrative of drugs. This is people caught on camera at painful times in their life so others can sum up their life and judge it. It's the logic of horizontal violence, where we can just write somebody off because they are a drug user. The history of someone's life, all the things they've experienced, all are linked to the one problem of drugs. So it makes them quite blameworthy. 

Faces of Meth seems like a form of propaganda in this war, a kind of modern day WANTED poster.
I agree. It's all about keeping a lookout in your community, alongside all the public service warnings about meth labs and the ingredients they need to cook. It's like the anti-terrorism stuff; if you see something, say something, these people are in your community, this is what you need to do. It's incredibly divisive and unhelpful. 

What did you make of Breaking Bad?
It's the same old story, the dealers were bad people, most of the users were zombies who would do horrible things for the drug, so it replayed all those old narratives. But it gives us something good to look at, right? 

You spent many hours riding with police in Kansas as fieldwork for your book. What was their take on meth? 
Police are in the business of identifying threats.  So they generally saw all community dysfunction and crime as drug-driven. In the very small towns in particular, they felt that everything they dealt with in the community they could trace back to meth. For example, they didn't see homes in disrepair as anything but signs of meth, drugs, and depravity. 

But when I looked at the statistics, they didn't follow that logic. These police were dealing with very few drug crimes, and very, very few for meth. But forget the truth. One of the wellsprings of the meth war is everyday cops, they are important producers of this logic—talking to people in the coffee shop, doing anti-drug talks in schools, they continue to spin and spin a yarn that is very important in legitimizing their place in the community and frankly their own power. 

You seem to think police and the DEA are playing fast and lose with the facts on meth labs…
Well, it's true that with clandestine labs some of that stuff does explode, but it's rare. And I would question the veracity of the DEA's stats on the number of meth labs local police find. If they find some suspicious junk somewhere or a two-liter soda bottle with a strange liquid, these are counted as "meth labs," but it's not exactly Walter White. It's simply misleading. Worse, people are charged with manufacture and even jailed if they are found with two-liter "shake and bake" bottles, so are looking at a serious amount of prison. The point we have reached is the product of years and years of apocalyptic thinking, so now we have these really out of whack punishments.

So why do these cops believe meth is the culprit for rural decay?
Like a lot of other people here, they can't bear to face the truth: Life has been hard for a long time, life's probably not getting any better. Jobs have gone because of corporate agriculture and the consolidation of family farms, and the consequences of accumulation. 

But I think it's easier to blame the local drug user, whether it was a kid you grew up with in high school, or someone you believe is an immigrant who happens to be working in a meatpacking plant who brought over a small amount of meth. It's easier to locate all your anxieties on this one visible problem than it is to confront your own history and to consider that your life may have never been that easy and probably never will be.


Watch the VICE doc about the 'Real' Walter White: 


Do people in these troubled parts of Kentucky and Kansas see their neighborhoods as decrepit meth zones?
From the outside, the rural Midwest and Appalachia are viewed as the proverbial "flyover land." It's written-off territory. "White trash" is used to denigrate people, of course, but for some it's also a marker of pride and transgression in a lot of ways, a kind of noble deprivation, flicking the middle finger at the upper classes and saying 'I'm white trash, fuck you."

But even those who live here succumb to the meth head rhetoric. 

Are there any parallels with America's urban war on crack?
Well, meth is associated with white people, but it's the same discourse on depravity and dependence, the same punitive logic as it was for the so-called urban black underclasses and crack. Charles Keating, the governor of Oklahoma, famously said that meth was a white trash drug just like crack is a black trash drug and that we should shame both. The cops didn't have a drug war out here, now they do. In this way, the drug war is a kind of a market that has to find new places to set up shop, otherwise it will stagnate and die. 

How does the meth war compare to what is going on now in America in terms of opiate addiction?
We do one thing with drugs in this country: we treat their use with police and prisons. So I don't think its all that different. There are parallels with crack, but the opiate problem is different from the meth problem. In Appalachia, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia in particular, pharmaceutical companies identified a population and market and quite literally pumped millions of pills into the area, via some aggressive marketing aimed at patients and doctors, with disastrous consequences: mass addiction to Oxycodone and subsequently a big rise in the use of heroin. As far as I know, meth has had no such corporate sponsorship, and is far less prevalent. Even so, in Appalachia and the Midwest there is very aggressive policing of meth, and frankly all drugs.

There is a kind of rural decay porn going on here.
Yes. I think in a lot of ways we are obsessed with the death of small rural towns. A 2004 investigation by the New York Times into meth in rural America quoted a sheriff in Nebraska saying every violent crime runs back to meth and that meth was linked to several murders. For the book, I looked at the statistics and crime had not increased in the way it claimed. Also, Adams County had just three murders in the four years leading to the article—it was just a sound-bite. The readers of the NYT want to know about the meth narrative in rural America, and it's much more sexy than the effect corporate agriculture and Monsanto are having on the community.

You say that police stand to benefit from the hype. How is this?
What meth did is that it brought the drug war en masse to new territories. It's a rhetoric used to justify increasing intrusion and police violence. So there is a call for more cops, more funding for cops, that it's fine for cops to have Kevlar helmets and assault rifles in a small town. Because of this powerful [Meth] Imaginary, the public believes that something has to be done, and so people become even less critical of the kind of police behavior they might not stand for normally. 

When I moved into academia, I realized how much the whole meth regime mapped onto everything we've done in this country relating to drugs, one drug after another. We erect this kind of edifice, advance it and really what it does is accomplish other political goals underneath: it brings funding, political careers are made. The authorities can [use meth fears to] broaden the types of political power they have, expand the number of police, get them new equipment. 

And you say the meth war is also being used to ratchet up social control.
Mexican cartels have been bringing meth into America for 20 years—it's nothing new. But recently there has been a shift in emphasis by police and politicians onto meth production facilities to Mexico and China. This provides a powerful framework for a lot of serious political work to get done: funneling millions of dollars to militarize the border, to arm and train Mexican police, help them build new jails and prisons and provide drug education to Mexican school children.

But meth obviously is an actual issue for some Americans, so what's the way forward here?
I'm calling for a realist approach to social problems, getting honest and serious about what's going on in our communities and our country. But I'm skeptical about whether we can do that, as a nation and as individuals, because that means confronting a lot of things. It's difficult, but we need some grim realism.

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