The publication of Nick Reding’s book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town has refocused national attention on the abuse of methamphetamine that was widely reported on as an epidemic a few years ago.
Although fears of about the spread of methamphetamine have somewhat subsided, the Wall Street Journal documents that last year more than 7,000 residential meth labs were discovered, so clearly the drug remains prevalent in national culture.
A New York Times blog about the book’s release explains the shift in perception over the past years:
It was going to destroy the heartland, this methamphetamine epidemic, just as crack cocaine had done to the inner city. There was no George Bailey in this version of Bedford Falls. No John Mellencamp melodies on the soundtrack. Just toothless boys on bikes peddling some nasty stuff cooked up from cold medicine and farm products.
And then it all passed, as these things do, the damage done, leaving the impression of rural America as a broken land, scary. In the interim, the more traditional narrative, of country people somehow more authentic than city folk — “the best of America in these small towns” — came roaring back in the form of Sarah Palin.
Both of these stereotypes reflect the human tendency to lump people into broad categories and stereotypes, masking the nuances that make each community, rural or urban, unique. While the blogger, Timothy Egan, acknowledges that neither view of rural America is correct, he does not acknowledge that these subtle differences in place require different policy approaches to methamphetamine abuse or other social problems. Egan continues with a quote from President Obama’s primary campaign:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration.”
Every president said he would do something about it, Obama continued, but never did. But he has a chance to make a difference in places that are neither methland nor mythland, just overlooked parts of the same country.
Looking to national leadership for dealing with local problems is doomed to lead to mass inefficiencies because the program that works to curb the meth problem in one town in unlikely to produce the same results in another. In a public radio interview, Reding described police strategy in Oelwien, Iowa:
“I think it worked incredibly well. 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.”
This local success may provide a model that could be adapted to use in other areas. However, suggesting that the federal government could possibly enact such successful policies across small town America is a dangerously naive belief.