The New Republic features anthropologist's research on methamphetamine manufacture in the rural US

New Republic

DECEMBER 23, 2013

I Embedded with a Community of Meth Users

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.

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