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I Embedded with a Community of Meth Users

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

The trailer parks of Jefferson County, Missouri, are a far cry from the international cartels of Breaking Bad, but this is the real picture of meth in America: Eveready batteries and Red Devil Lye on kitchen counters, used syringes mixed in with children's homework, drawers full of forks bent out of shape by chronic users’ obsessive tinkering. Over the course of nearly a decade studying home meth production in the rural U.S., SUNY Purchase anthropologist Jason Pine has looked on as Jefferson County’s practiced ‘chemists’ cook their product, watched addicts inject their own veins, and visited houses destroyed by meth lab explosions. “Jefferson County is largely rural,” Pine told me. “Houses can be quite secluded. It has rocky ridges that make it unsuitable for farming, but great for meth cooking.”

Alice Robb: Who makes meth?

Jason Pine: Many people in Jefferson County begin cooking to supplement their income and to cover the costs of their own addiction. There were some people profiting, but those profits dwindled as their habits increased. These meth manufacturers are not like cartel leaders: They’re making it for personal use. New regulations against pseudoephedrine-based medicine have made large-scale production harder. There’s a new recipe that’s easier and simpler, though it’s more dangerous and explosive.

The cost of setting up a lab is very low—you need a Gatorade bottle, some tubing, some batteries. And it’s portable: You can make it on the run. If you need to, you can pick up your ‘lab’ and throw it out.

Cooking meth is a kind of apprenticeship. Recipes circulate among cooks like secrets or rumors. Apprenticeships take place in the woods or in the home, sometimes inter-generationally. There are cases when three generations of a single family have cooked and used together. They engage in a DIY practice that I equate with alchemy. They’re transmuting base substances—everyday commodities you can find at Walmart—into something precious: a panacea, a cure-all. Meth cures all ills of the world by transforming the world, by tweaking the user’s neurological relation to the world. Meth cooking is alchemy in its contemporary, late capitalist form.

AR: How do people in Jefferson County get into meth?

JP: Many of the people I met began meth on the job—concrete work, roofing, trucking, factory work. It’s a way to make the job easier, to work longer hours and make more money. Meth increases dopamine levels in the brain, which can cause people to engage in repetitive (and often meaningless) actions—a behavioral effect that syncs up well with ‘work you gotta turn your mind off for,’ as one cook told me.

Others began at home, often because their parents, older siblings, or grandparents were making it. I talked to people in prison who began when they were in elementary school. Some users will administer it to their children—they’ll blow it into their mouths if they’re smoking it. They want to share it with their children; they want to experience it together, feel closer. If there’s no entertainment, no sports, nothing to do after school—you need money to pay for gas, to go to the movies—the main activities are drinking, smoking weed. The boundaries are blurry.

With meth, there aren’t big parties like there are with some other drugs. If there are large groups of people who take meth together regularly, it's a network of people who help each other acquire the ingredients to cook it.

AR: How do they consume it?

JP: People smoke it, inject it—sometimes they’ll just cut themselves open and pour it into their veins. Other times, people will eat it: They’ll stick it in Twinkies, roll it up in balls of Wonderbread, put it in their coffee if they’re working. The convenience of meth is that it doesn’t require constant administration. It’s not like coke that you have to take every hour or crack that you have to take every ten minutes.

AR: How does meth affect people?

JP: They become exuberant and talkative, switching subjects often. They’re very happy and want to share. There’s some moodiness, too—they’ll quickly snap into some kind of aggressive reaction. They generate a lot of abstract ideas. They want to talk about their own theories—not well thought-out ones, of course, but they’ll feel that they’re onto something. Often, God comes up while they’re explaining their hallucinations. The neurological effects of high dopamine levels can induce religious sentiment and transcendental thinking.

They talk about feeling more alive, more god-like. They don’t talk about the drug like, say, a heroin user would talk about being radically altered or slipping out of life; rather, they feel like more of a self.

Physically, they’re very fidgety. They feel engaged and active and entrepreneurial. They’ll launch into many projects: tinkering with machines, repairing and re-repairing, inventing and re-inventing. It’s like you or me taking ADHD meds—a sort of legitimated form of speed. Adderall is middle-class meth. It motivates people to produce themselves as the kinds of avid, goal-pursuing, risk-taking and at-the-ready subjects of late capitalism. The stressed, anxious and overworked individuals that animate many segments of the US ‘mainstream’ economy are perhaps the more presentable kin of the emaciated, toothless, pockmarked, wide-eyed and busy meth users I encountered.

Meth addiction is quite different from other addictions. For up to two years after quitting, people suffer from anhedonia—the inability to experience pleasure.

AR: How did you gain access to communities of meth users?

JP: I worked with cultural “ambassadors” who could communicate to users that I wasn't out to get them. One bartender was particularly helpful. In a small community, you get connected to people easily.

Some people I encountered were suspicious that I was collaborating with police. Twice, people followed me in their cars. Some users had trouble understanding why I wasn’t using along with them. I’d tell them I prefer other drugs. In one failed meeting with a (supposedly) former meth user, the guy snarled at me, “I want to know what you think you’re doing here and what you think you’re going to learn from people who are putting all their energy into hiding what they’re doing.”

To most people, though, my status as a professor made me a different kind of ‘male.’ I’m not working-class; I speak with a certain level of articulation that sets me apart. They don’t compare me on the same terms.

AR: There are reports of meth reaching new, urban markets.

JP: In cities like New York, San Francisco, and LA, the drug is popular with many types of people from all classes and races and ethnicities; it's particularly popular among men who have sex with men, many of whom use the drug to enhance sex. In rural Missouri, on the other hand, meth circulates largely among poorer white blue-collar people. It has distinct class associations. Students at the University of Missouri told me that they would use crack before they used meth, which they considered a "white trash" drug.

It’s a different kind of meth that has made it to the cities, which are better-networked with drug trafficking routes. There’s a kind of meth that’s professionally produced: It’s more aesthetically appealing, more acceptable to a middle-class consumer than meth cooked in a home lab, which is going to be yellowish or brownish and doesn’t have the same kind of packaging.