The Alchemy of Meth
February 12, 2020 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Meth began to thrive in Missouri for many of the same reasons it thrives in other disaffected towns in the rural Midwest: As factory jobs evaporated or migrated overseas, the ones left behind often paid less and came with fewer benefits. Some Missourians turned to making and selling the drug to supplement their income; others took to using it, as a performance-enhancing medication. Meth furiously ramps up productivity, allowing people to work longer hours “or bear the work they were doing,” Pine says, “which can be backbreaking, like concrete work; or boring, like factory work or truck driving.” In his new book The Alchemy of Meth, anthropologist Jason Pine chronicles how methamphetamine addiction reshaped rural Missouri, and beyond. Sarah Holder reports for City Lab.

The impulse to find productive outlets—or to mentally escape once those outlets are gone—should be familiar to anyone, in any social class or region in the U.S., Pine says. That’s the reality of America under what UC Irvine anthropologist Kim Fortun has dubbed “late industrialism”—a time when many workers are overextended and living in precarity. Coping mechanisms might be chemical or digital, benign or toxic.

During his struggles to write the book, Pine found himself growing increasingly reliant on Adderall—usually seen as a more white-collar, professional form of performance enhancement. “Adderall made writing about meth users easier, and faster, but there was an uneasy chemical proximity,” he writes. (When Pine appears in this own book, it’s in the third person: He asked friends and colleagues to interview him, so he, too, could be a part of the analysis.) His use of the drug similarly helped position himself alongside his subjects, not above them; under Adderall’s influence, he becomes more aware of the “psychopharmaceutical bleed” that breaches regions and classes and legal divides.

“It’s not just about trying to make ends meet—it’s also about feeling useful,” he says. “Where did that deficiency come from? It comes from some kind of internalized self-critique that comes from a neoliberalist sensibility: that you’re on your own, you are what you make of yourself, and you’re never enough.”
posted by Bella Donna (41 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
wants to paint an honest picture of “meth viewed not as a monstrosity, and meth cooks not as aberrant beings, and rural Missouri not as a margin"

Huh, I'm not saying it's wrong to portray folks as human beings, but you sure didn't get this kind of coverage for "urban" or "non-white" drug trends.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:39 AM on February 12 [33 favorites]


Welp, that took a hard turn from "there are many sociological factors behind meth abuse," straight into "ADHD patients who use stimulants to regulate their disorder are basically proto-meth-addicts." You're most of the way there, CityLab... now do the thinkpiece about how prescription amphetamines are overprescribed to kids, which is somehow causing the explosion in meth usage, probably... you're so close to clutching all of those pearls at once.
posted by Mayor West at 10:50 AM on February 12 [14 favorites]


I'm dumb, but what does meth do to you?
posted by Keith Talent at 10:52 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I was just bitching to myself about how dumb it is I can't get sudafed from my gas station and have to deal with shitty non-working alternatives like phenylephrine. But adding acetominophen to every goddamned thing like some of us aren't alcoholics is totes fine.
posted by symbioid at 10:55 AM on February 12 [19 favorites]


Huh, I'm not saying it's wrong to portray folks as human beings, but you sure didn't get this kind of coverage for "urban" or "non-white" drug trends.

Yeah, it is kind of a shock to the system to experience more nuanced reporting about virtually anything and, especially, drug use.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:58 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Meth is short for methamphetamine - it's speed. It also seems to be highly addictive and the production process is highly toxic.

But since the halcyon days of the Clinton economic boom, which was created by companies slashing jobs by the thousands but damn the stock market was happy, we are all doing the work of at least two people, if not more. Speeds kills, but in the meantime, it helps.

*Edit window: I suddenly realized this has nothing to do with the article. I'll be quiet now.
posted by corvikate at 10:59 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


Here in the postindustrial rural Midwest, I recently saw a product called "Tweaker" at the gas station. Some kind of 5-Hour-Energy knockoff for truckers - caffeine, some vitamins, and sucralose.

It just struck me as really symptomatic of something - an acknowledgment that long-haul trucking (and a lot of other jobs around here) depends on an amount of productivity or wakefulness that isn't really possible without chemical enhancement; the fantasy that we can have Just Enough of a boost of energy without having Too Much.
posted by Jeanne at 11:08 AM on February 12 [19 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Please bear in mind drug use already bears a lot of stigma and that makes every solution harder, so let's take some care to avoid adding to that. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:20 AM on February 12 [7 favorites]


With The Alchemy of Meth, Pine says he wanted to complicate the usual narrative about the drug, which was made infamous by TV shows like Breaking Bad and by its association, along with opioid abuse, with this era’s much-talked-about crisis of rural poverty and despair. But meth is not easily reduced to one region or a socio-economic category. Pine didn’t want his readers to have a “birds-eye view of the scene and feel that they’re clean as well,” he says. “I wanted to show the sprawling messiness of this situation—to show how it bleeds into anything familiar to you and me as well; and also to eradicate the easy sense of hope.”

Thanks for posting this. I'll probably give it a read. Reading the linked article, he seems to be taking a similarly nuanced tack Nick Reding's Methland (Reding looks at his home town of Oelwein, Iowa, and a whole bunch of economic factors, including union busting in the meat processing industry).

From the summary of this New Books in History interview with Reding:

And as Nick Reding explains in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Bloomsbury, 2009) America’s midland didn’t have much to feel good about in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Globalization was hammering the industries that had long supported places like little Oelwein, Iowa, the subject of Reding’s attention. Light manufacture, meatpacking, and agriculture were all in decline. Wages were dropping, poverty rising, and people were leaving for the coasts (as I had). Misery loves company, but there was less and less company to be had in Oelwein. Misery, however, also loves drugs, and there was plenty of meth to go around thanks to a peculiar alliance between: 1) big pharma–which opposed any legislation to limit the sale of the essential over-the-counter ingredient in meth; 2) south-of-the-border drug cartels–who took said over-the-counter ingredient and made massive quantities of meth; and 3) some down-on-their luck Iowans–who arranged for the import of said drug. In some ways, meth did what it was supposed to do: it made sad people happy and tired people strong. But it also destroyed the lives of users, their families, and their communities. The bi-co[a]stal press reported that the hicks of flyoverland had been possessed by a new kind of “reefer madness.” The rest of the story–globalization, lobbying by big pharma, the drug cartels–it missed for the most part. Nick Reding didn’t, and we in Iowa owe him a debt of gratitude.

The full interview is a pretty good overview of the book.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:31 AM on February 12 [10 favorites]


In 1999, I was traveling to Arkansas on a weekly basis for a project. I got to know some of the local waitresses. One of them really hustled - always had a surplus of energy. We got to talking; one night when it was slow in the restaurant, she sat down and said, "Don't ever even try meth. It's going to kill me." She didn't look like you'd expect the stereotype - no sunken jowls, no rotten teeth; a picture of health.

"Don't ever even try meth. It's going to kill me."
posted by notsnot at 11:46 AM on February 12 [25 favorites]


his home town

Bah. Reding's from St. Louis, MO. My bad.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:52 AM on February 12


Makes me think of the essay from a few days ago about how the reality is that most people in the US don't have college degrees and the kinds of jobs you can get without a college degree don't pay enough to live on. How long can a society last when you show up in the world with a stat sheet that says here's what your human body can do and here's what your human mind can do, but none of that will actually help you survive and it will probably just get in your way, throw it out and be something else. Instead you have to double all your stats and have already been born into a different family. We're asking people to do the impossible and then we get all bent out of shape when they can't do it.
posted by bleep at 12:17 PM on February 12 [30 favorites]


It’s not just about trying to make ends meet—it’s also about feeling useful,” he says. “Where did that deficiency come from? It comes from some kind of internalized self-critique that comes from a neoliberalist sensibility: that you’re on your own, you are what you make of yourself, and you’re never enough.”

I mean I definitely feel this way all the time - I tried to go into a profession where I thought I'd be contributing something to society in a small way I thought I could manage, but in my actual job that's not what they actually want from me, so I have to manage the conflict between my instinct and the things I'm being told. And if I can't manage that, I'll be living on the street under a tarp like the thousands of folks I drive by every day, because no one else can provide for me except me. The sheer dread this produces in my brain was terrifying and unbearable, but since I couldn't really articulate it to my primary care doctor the only help I can get is legalized pot, so thank god for that.
posted by bleep at 12:25 PM on February 12 [21 favorites]


The "you're never enough" part really resonates with me as well. I know there are people who don't feel that way, because I married one. That is not a slam on my ex. I wish I could imagine feeling like I am enough all the time, so much so that it never occurred to me that it was an issue. On my good days, and there are more of them now than there used to be, I don't struggle with feeling inadequate. But on some of my bad days ... oh golly, it's hard.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:36 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


We're asking people to do the impossible and then we get all bent out of shape when they can't do it.

Yep. That's been my life for a while now.

My last job was doing the work four people had been struggling to do before me.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:51 PM on February 12 [13 favorites]


"It’s not just about trying to make ends meet—it’s also about feeling useful,” he says. “Where did that deficiency come from? It comes from some kind of
internalized self-critique that comes from a neoliberalist sensibility: that you’re on your own, you are what you make of yourself, and you’re never enough.”

And that situation makes people angry, desperate, and suggestable, and that is how you wind up with a militant right wing. IT's tragic.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 1:55 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


Huh, I'm not saying it's wrong to portray folks as human beings, but you sure didn't get this kind of coverage for "urban" or "non-white" drug trends.

Rural white meth users didn't exactly get this kind of coverage in the 00s, when the "meth epidemic" was all over the news. I'd argue the longtime efforts of drug policy/criminal justice reformers to reframe these discussions have started to pay off.
posted by atoxyl at 2:22 PM on February 12 [17 favorites]


It astounds me that people don't intuitively realize that not having a life worth living is the number one driver of substance misuse. It betrays a fundamentally twisted worldview in which some people are simply just too alien, too other, too stupid, too foolish, too disgusting, too evil to not make an rational internal cost/benefit analysis of their shitty desperate lives vs the escape, power and community of drug use. People are not stupid. We need to give people something to live for .
posted by flamk at 2:58 PM on February 12 [52 favorites]


Any experiences here with meth? Everything—everything—I've read about it sounds horrible. I've done drugs, weed, coke, LSD, shrooms, even Special K (though I did not enjoy that). I'm genuinely interested in the appeal meth has.
posted by SoberHighland at 6:36 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Excuse me if this is too do-my-homeworkish, but has anyone seen any writing which portrays poc/urban addicts as people responding in a reasonable way to an impossible situation?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:53 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


I once spent a day digging a long ditch to rewire a house to city power with a fellow homeless friend on a bit of meth. It was to code and a some money chaned hands about the whole no permit thing. Dude was ex-military electrician. Couple hundred dollars, get your hustle on. SoberHighland, yeah, don't. I've lived with crazy meth-heads and junkies. My line was try everything once or twice but no needles and I don't really enjoy amphetamines in the first place. Smoking some heroin was my "OMG no" and meth was my "don't like to tweak for a day" and living around tweakers and junkies was an ordeal. There's a fine line in there somewhere between recreational and OMG that is easy to cross (or not). Danger Will Robinson (waves arms furiously).

I'll leave you with this though:
Proverbs 31:7
Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.

Old man in sky said that.

Amphetamines and Opioids bad, double so smoking them, triple or quadruple so injecting them. I don't have that much problem with psychedelics.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:03 PM on February 12 [9 favorites]


Any experiences here with meth? Everything—everything—I've read about it sounds horrible. I've done drugs, weed, coke, LSD, shrooms, even Special K (though I did not enjoy that). I'm genuinely interested in the appeal meth has.

Okay, I'll bite. In the recreational phase of meth use, smoking it provides a body rush and an intense sense of well being followed soon by a feeling of relaxed, um... invincibility? It's like, you can focus on whatever you want to focus on, you can hold conversations with friends for hours, you can drink a lot more beer because the alcohol is lesser on your system than the speed. There's a sex/meth connection thing, too. Doing a line of it is similar with the onset slower and is a bit more difficult to titrate. I never injected it, thank god.

I don't recommend doing it. It's a lot of fun, right up until it isn't anymore, and at that point it's already too late.
posted by hippybear at 7:13 PM on February 12 [14 favorites]


Excuse me if this is too do-my-homeworkish, but has anyone seen any writing which portrays poc/urban addicts as people responding in a reasonable way to an impossible situation?

Twenty-years old now but still quite good.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:35 PM on February 12 [10 favorites]


Heh I was just about to say David Simon's works on the the subject were definitely ahead of the curve on that.
posted by atoxyl at 7:59 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


Any experiences here with meth? Everything—everything—I've read about it sounds horrible. I've done drugs, weed, coke, LSD, shrooms, even Special K (though I did not enjoy that). I'm genuinely interested in the appeal meth has.

I mean you've taken one dopaminergic stimulant (cocaine). You ever take adderall/"regular" amphetamine? Because that's even closer - I think with a comparable dose and route of administration pretty close but people tend to smoke meth which will hit you harder. You'll feel alert and full of energy and ready to take on anything.

I actually did have a terrible experience - much the same terrible experience both times I tried it. Basically I kept compulsively redosing (a big thing with dopamine drugs, smoked or injected apparently) without realizing how high I already was, until I stood up and felt like I was going to fucking die. Then I went to try to get some food to restore my strength, ended up with a McDonald's breakfast burrito (only place open, terrible idea) -and then I couldn't sleep for two days. The other time I had a slightly better time but I still couldn't sleep for two days. But if you're not trying to be asleep, I mean - it's speed.
posted by atoxyl at 8:30 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]


(That was supposed to say "especially," not "apparently.")
posted by atoxyl at 8:37 PM on February 12


Any experiences here with meth? Everything—everything—I've read about it sounds horrible. I've done drugs, weed, coke, LSD, shrooms, even Special K (though I did not enjoy that). I'm genuinely interested in the appeal meth has.

I loved speed. Loved it. I never used a needle, I've snorted it some and that's faster than eating it but less into my system. I put it into my mouth and chased it down with whatever, it took however long it took to come on but when it did, it was something.

I couldn't smoke pot without drinking, because it made me paranoid. But I loved how it opened my head, so pot and then drinking. Except that didn't work because now I'm dulled and stupefied. The answer? Speed. I could drink and drink and keep on enjoying it. I could smoke more pot, too, because I could drink to keep from getting small. Just keep on eating speed, to keep the show going. What a blast! My favorite high school high.

Except, there's a problem — coming down. It's horrible. I know that some people used opiates of whatever description, any type of benzo would have been helpful, but I was (wisely, knowing myself) I was very afraid of opiates, and never really had a line on benzos. So now it's the waiting game. Waiting, wide awake, with the hangover from hell. Plus I'd smoked two packs of cigarettes, and was smoking even in the waiting. The downside of speed itself was like I'd been really, really tired and then drank a pot (or more) of shitty 7/11 coffee, it's gritty and sweaty and grimy and even my eyes hurt. I was absolutely Not Happy. Not at all.

I always think of John Cash singing Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Comin' Down, that gets toward the neighborhood of how I felt. (Best Sunday morning quiet filth in Austin is on Sixth street, and even better than that is in the alley on the south side of Sixth street, behind the bars, there's garbage and empty beer cans and bottles and puddles of puke here and there and a pile of dogshit to step into, a homeless, heavily tattooed guy laying in the grit, and that amazing Sunday morning quiet.)

And I know that for some (many) it leads to the most intense sex ever but it killed sex for me, so that piece was missing. Oh, and if it does do the sex thing for you, and you are now clean, you might find yourself in the group run by an old therapist I had, for women who couldn't orgasm without speed or crack. So there's that, too.

One of my best friends is a clean/sober alcoholic / speed freak, he was proud of being able to help crackheads, by turning them into speed freaks, because at least once you get that spike in your arm your good for 8 or 10 hours, and needn't go out stealing or selling yourself for a while. Driving around town with Jimmy is just one hell of a lot of fun, see what he sees— "That ladder there? Easy pickings, sell for ten or fifteen bucks. Oh man, there's a boat on a trailer! A hundred dollars! That lawn furniture ..." He sees everything.

I've known lots and lots of speed freaks, one very interesting night I found myself in a speed dealers house, whoops, I'm out of high school now, running with my junky, trashy friends, we'd knocked on the door at whatever ungodly hour, the dealer looked exactly like what he was, IE a trashy speed freak, it was near north Houston, off Airline Drive, guns laying around, etc and etc. The fact of the matter is that I am *not* a part of this scene, regardless who I was running with I was basically a white-bread candy-ass alcoholic with wide eyes at seeing the guns and the people who owned them. That's forty years gone by and it's still clear.

tl;dr — The high is absolutely not worth the down. It's really euphoric and if it does the sex thing for you and you've got a line on a way to get down, by all means, go on and ruin your life. Probably you ought not to.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:00 PM on February 12 [23 favorites]


And I know that for some (many) it leads to the most intense sex ever but it killed sex for me, so that piece was missing. Oh, and if it does do the sex thing for you, and you are now clean, you might find yourself in the group run by an old therapist I had, for women who couldn't orgasm without speed or crack. So there's that, too.

I'm not sure if I should say this part but what the hell. I never really got stimulants as a sex thing so much - both in terms of appetite and in terms of the physical side effects not being entirely conducive. But I did rub one out when I was trying to come down from one of my awful amphetamine adventures and it was... really intense, surprisingly so. So yeah, there's also that.
posted by atoxyl at 9:29 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Basically kids, the message is, don't do meth (or speed generally) as a recreational drug. It fucks with you. If you want to know more, MeMail me. I'm nearly 20 years outside of that part of my life, but I'm sure the experience doesn't change that much across the decades.
posted by hippybear at 9:59 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]


I've never trusted any drug that "helps" you work longer hours.
posted by mikelieman at 10:41 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Saskatoon's awash in it: it's cheap and quick and really easy to deal, and most of the local gangs specialize in it. The dealers across the street from me used to sell it, and there doesn't seem to be that much else on the market here.

I've never done it -- many many years since I've taken anything but booze and/or dope -- but it looks like a nightmare, or at least the effects look like a nightmare. Psychosis (lots of news stories about screaming naked people attacking passersby), aggression, really horrible physical and mental decay, all for about 5 bucks a hit.

Just nope.
posted by jrochest at 10:47 PM on February 12


I was prescribed amphetamine salts for ADHD for a while, with at least one dosage increase that I remember. For the first week or so it worked OK, but after that it was a jumble of insomnia, shaking, violent teeth chattering, and jaw clenching.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:03 PM on February 12


Funny story -- meth got me to stop doing drugs.

In college, I worked in a restaurant, and drugs and booze were everywhere. I was young, so I smoked a little bit of weed every day, drank way too much cheap beer, and very occasionally did shrooms, acid, or ecstasy. It was good times, possibly the best times of my life.

One night, after a long shift washing dishes, my friend and i biked over to the house of the Guy Who Threw Parties and Always Had Friends Over. He was a super friendly guy, but definitely a thrill addict. He was very excited because he had some "glass," which was, apparently, some super-pure Walter White-quality amphetamines, which he was selling in tiny, tiny little bags for $20...

...I tried some. It was incredible. It was like a lightning bolt to the brain. Pure energy. I felt like Superman. I wanted to do anything and everything and never stop. All tiredness, any aches or pains, any discomfort was gone.

Long story short, we spent the next week or so high out of our minds, having a lot of fun that I can barely remember. I remember coming down and getting drowsy for the first time in days with my friends seeing "The Fellowship of the Ring" in the theater. But then it was gone. It was over. There was no more, thank God.

After that experience, I just lost interest in everything else. I quit drinking, smoking weed, and have been 100% sober for many years. Meth makes you feel SO GOOD, every other intoxicant is garbage in comparison. I expect to remain straight-edge until I'm dying of old age and need opioids.

Drugs are bad, no one should do them. Mmmmkay.
posted by Chronorin at 2:52 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]



Any experiences here with meth? Everything—everything—I've read about it sounds horrible. I've done drugs, weed, coke, LSD, shrooms, even Special K (though I did not enjoy that). I'm genuinely interested in the appeal meth has.



Meth is the one drug I will never do again because it was pretty much the perfect drug for me. It felt spectacular. compared to cocaine, or fent, or a combination of crack/hard liquor/molly/weed - still better than that. "like your heart is being touched by the hand of God" is how I'd describe it. It's been over two decades now, and I can still remember that feeling. It was no surprise to me when it became an epidemic - that shit sells itself.
posted by some loser at 5:57 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]


I have no intention of trying it. Thanks for the anecdotes. I had never heard a positive story about it, figured there must be some upside. Staying awake for days sounds like a living hell to me, personally. I dislike any form of speedy stuff, even too much coffee. And cocaine completely kills my libido.
posted by SoberHighland at 6:26 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


In regards to the experience, I found this comedy routine on This Is Not Happening to be scary accurate (and very, very funny). NSFW, obviously.

I did lots of meth in college and totally loved it. Cheaper than coke, lasted a lot longer, allowed you to do away with shitty stuff like eating and sleeping and depression. And I looked like a normal, well-adjusted student to everyone else, as far as I know (at least during the week — I mostly only did it on weekends). But maybe I didn’t.
posted by sock puppet du jour at 7:07 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]


I only ever did speed when it was cut into something else. Would never choose to do it on it's own. Like coke, it only amplifies the bits of me I want to numb.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 1:36 PM on February 13


And I looked like a normal, well-adjusted student to everyone else, as far as I know (at least during the week — I mostly only did it on weekends). But maybe I didn’t.

It's often kind of obvious. A few times I've been in the vicinity of an obvious tweaker trying to hustle something and it's just awful because they know they're coming on too jittery and weird and yet it has them convinced they're righteous and why doesn't the person believe them and they should but shit they know they're full of it and it shows, doesn't it, shit shit shit, why they don't believe me. It's excruciating to watch.
posted by praemunire at 2:46 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


I got dark circles under my eyes nearly immediately after taking in meth, so in general public (if I was just high and not jittery) I just looked super tired, but for people who knew me they knew immediately if I was high or not by that.

Meth isn't a thing where every user gets so high that they are a total jittery mess in public. That's second stage use, generally. Mostly first-stage users do a bit and they feel super-great-wow but they aren't presenting as what you think of as "a meth user". That's not recreational level use, when you're seeing that. That's something else entirely.
posted by hippybear at 3:17 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


True, these were people already at the stealing/hustling-strangers stage. (But I think people often underestimate how noticeable their high (of almost any kind) is.)
posted by praemunire at 7:24 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I had never heard a positive story about it, figured there must be some upside.

Erdos and his impact in the field of Mathematics is one upside. I don't know if he used actual Methamphetamine, but he used a small dose of stimulants daily, except for a month for a bet (which he won) to prove that he wasn't addicted. His attitude during the bet was that the lack of stimulants simply delayed the field of math a month as he would look at a blank page and get no ideas, while on the stimulants the math would just flow out of him.
posted by koolkat at 12:50 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]


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