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Meth’s affiliation with rural life doesn't ‘make sense anymore’

Jeff Roberson
The Associated Press File
While Meth's mainly manufactured outside of the U.S., local effects — legal and otherwise — continue.

On the Home Cooked podcast, Olivia Weeks explores the drug’s trajectory during the past 50 years.

The history of methamphetamine in the United States is fractured, crossing both northern and southern borders. Its use and distribution, too, developed independently in different parts of the country.

Home Cooked, a podcast from nonprofit news site The Daily Yonder, explores all of that stretching back to 1971, when meth was restricted in the U.S.

It also tries to untangle why meth’s largely associated with rural populations.

While the drug’s mainly manufactured in Mexico and imported to the U.S., local effects — legal and otherwise — continue. In early April, a Southwest Virginia task force seized 124 lbs. of meth, among other drugs, after a two-year investigation. And a month earlier, a Big Stone Gap resident was sentenced to almost 9 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession with the intent to distribute.

Olivia Weeks, who reported and produced Home Cooked, recently spoke with VPM News about Virginia’s history with the drug, its attendant stigma and law enforcement’s evolving relationship with meth.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Dave Cantor: I believe you’ve said that most meth in Virginia isn’t made here. So, where’s it come from — and when’d it start to show up?

Olivia Weeks: At this point, most meth in the United States is not made anywhere near where it's used or sold. It's mostly made south of the border in Mexico.

Now, in an earlier version of the methamphetamine problem — in the ’90s and early 2000s — in some places, a lot of meth was made in local areas by local users. That was really true in the Western U.S.; that was also really true in the Midwest.

Now, on the East Coast, that was never really true. So, even the era that gave meth its stereotype as something that's made in the basement or in the barn, that never happened in Virginia.

In Virginia, even in 2002, most meth was coming from Mexico. Virginia had sort of a different meth problem from the very beginning than the rest of the country — or the Midwest, in particular.

The podcast, I think, talks a lot about 30 Rock making meth jokes, which I totally forgot about.

The reason for this podcast was that we felt like methamphetamine had this sort of stereotypical, cultural rural association. And we're a national rural news source, so we wanted to understand why that was.

Basically, what I found was that in the early 2000s, in the ’90s, it made sense that there was sort of a rural stereotype around meth. Because when you were making methamphetamine in these medium-scale mom-and-pop labs — enough for like a social group of people to get high everyday from this meth lab … . At that scale, you really needed to sort of be out in the country to make meth, because it smelled really bad. And because you didn't want your neighbors watching you.

Also, a lot of the chemicals sort of have this rural association. Like this one chemical that you need to make meth in some recipes — anhydrous ammonia — is a farm fertilizer. If there's a farm supply store nearby or if there's a farmer that you can steal from nearby, that's going to make you want to be in the countryside to make methamphetamine.

There was this rural association that made sense. But then, by the time that 30 Rock is making jokes about it, it doesn't really make sense anymore. Because it's in 2011, 2010, that kind of shake-and-bake operation — like people in their cars making methamphetamine — people are doing that everywhere.

The Daily Yonder
Olivia Weeks reported the 5-part podcast series "Home Cooked," which wades through America's history with meth.

I think that rural association really stuck around much longer than it was useful. And it's part of why the methamphetamine problem that we're facing today gets sort of weird and undersized attention compared to the opioid epidemic.

There are health impacts related to meth, as well as legal implications. Have you seen a change in how law enforcement and courts have dealt with the drug during the past 50 years? Because I do think the perception of it has changed as well.

Law enforcement has handled this drug completely differently at different points. You say in the last 50 years. Fifty years ago, well, a little over 50 years ago in [1970], methamphetamine was legal and widely accessible.

And 10 years before that, it was sold over the counter as a decongestant. It has not always been this sort of scary, illicit drug that it's made out to be now. And they're sort of good reasons for that.

Over time, in the ’90s, police didn't really know what was going on with methamphetamine. They didn't really know how to recognize a meth lab. And then they get better at recognizing meth labs, and then they're finding meth labs everywhere they look.

I think that used to carry really harsh sentences — and still does in some places. But I think the meth problem has gotten so much bigger, because it's much easier to produce a lot of meth in this sort of pseudo-professional system in Mexico.

The seizures that you're seeing now are so much bigger than they were when it was some guy making meth in the barn. And at the same time, I think in general — this is sort of very broadly speaking — mass incarceration is less popular than it once was. People don't want to fund prisons in the way that they did 20, 30 years ago.

Sentences have gotten smaller as the meth problem has gotten bigger.

Now, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but the legal system is really having to adapt all the time to changes in this drug — and it's also changing this drug. At every point where the legal system reduces access to a precursor chemical or stamps out one method of production, a new method of production comes about.

That's why meth is made in Mexico now, because [federal and state governments] made it really hard to make methamphetamine in the U.S. around 2005. Meth was always made in Mexico, but now there's not even any reason to really try and make methamphetamine in the U.S. because it's so easy, it's so cheap to make it in Mexico.

All throughout meth’s history, there's this really complicated interplay between law enforcement and the drug’s supply chain.

Has anything that law enforcement has done — whether it's restricting access to chemicals — actually affected use?

The trend over time is definitely that meth use has increased. And that's not for a lack of law enforcement trying. If you look from 1990 to today, the trend line is entirely positive — maybe with some slight ups and downs at different moments.

What they have been able to stamp out is, as I've said, domestic production of meth. Now, that comes with its own sort of specific risks. You don't really want meth labs exploding in your town. If you can reduce that without reducing the use of methamphetamine, maybe you count that as a win and move on.

So, they have affected some parts of the methamphetamine system. But as I said, the trend line is really only positive.

Is there some strategy you encountered while reporting this that would be useful for law enforcement to implement?

I don't think so. And I don't think that decriminalization is a straightforward answer; it sounds like a pretty painful and difficult one. But that's the one that I'm the most interested in because it could really help reduce overdose deaths and potentially, at least, funnel some resources away from law enforcement, which I think has really served to make this problem worse over time.

But that's a pretty depressing world to live in.

Home Cooked from The Daily Yonder is available on Spotify as part of Rural Remix.

Dave Cantor has been an editor with VPM News since 2022, juggling daily digital and broadcast stories.
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