Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
In his new book The Alchemy of Meth, anthropologist Jason Pine chronicles how methamphetamine addiction reshaped rural Missouri, and beyond.
Scouring the roads of Eastern Missouri for methamphetamine labs one day in 2013, Jason Pine came across a likely looking property: 20 vacuum cleaners hung from the trees in the yard; a truck, strangely filled to bursting with jewelry and Barbie dolls, decayed in the yellow grass. Nearby sat a beached speedboat, a riding mower, and a selection of gardening implements. Rusting mechanical bits formed patterns on the lawn.
A lot of nearby yards resembled this one, scattered with scrap metal and rusted bicycles and plastic bins. They’re not junkyards, Pine says—under the careful hands of small-town tinkerers, even crushed and broken appliances and household objects can be repaired and sold. They’re just yards full of stuff.
Missouri is a state where “minding one’s own business often goes with the territory,” Pine writes in The Alchemy of Meth, a new book about how the drug—cooking it, selling it, and taking it—overwhelmed one rural county. It’s easy for neighbors to hide what’s going on behind closed doors. But sometimes a particularly cluttered yard, pulsing with “bent energy,” betrays what’s going on inside nearby homes and trailers. “Tweaker yards” are wilder than others, in part because cooking meth generates a lot of trash. The disorder also reflects the seemingly boundless energy the drug provides, turning addicts into maniacal collectors seeking “some kind of material world to anchor,” Pine says.
The toothless man who lived in the trailer framed by the doll-filled truck was a meth cook, Pine says, and the objects in his yard were part of “his own détourned Walmart.” He called his ad-hoc side-of-the-road discount store “Last Chance Incorporated.”
Pine, an anthropology and media studies professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, moved to Missouri in 2005, for a teaching gig at the University of Missouri-Columbia. There, he met dozens of people touched by the drug; after his term ended, he kept in contact with many of them, and returned to do more research on the epidemic for four months in 2013. By weaving together vignettes culled from interviews of users, cooks, family members of the affected, enforcement agents, and pharmaceutical company executives, Pine traced the topography of meth as its use expanded dramatically during the early 21st century.
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.”
Unlike heroin and crack cocaine—drugs whose ascendence during the 1970s and ‘80s was inextricably associated with urban America—meth has long been known as the drug of the middle of nowhere. The original labs were confined to barns on the fringe of populated places, where there was the space and privacy to cook big batches of methamphetamine. The process took about two days of chemical mixing, and required large amounts of pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient of many nasal decongestant meds. One pharmaceutical executive told Pine that meth production once resembled old-time moonshine operations, when people would buy standard supplies (in this case, cold and allergy pills) over the counter and then hide out in the woods to create the illicit substance.
In 2006, the federal government instituted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which made bulk amounts of pseudoephedrine much harder to obtain: It set limits on how much one could buy each day and each month, introduced ID checks and more stringent logging requirements for pharmacists, and moved the drugs behind the counter. One state, Oregon, started requiring a prescription to buy the products. Meth lab seizures dropped over the next two years.
Then, via word of mouth, an alternative recipe emerged, called “Shake and Bake.” In only a few hours, cooks could make small amounts of meth inside a soda bottle, shaking it periodically (or “burping” it) to get the pressure out. This new method was more dangerous—“if you miss a beat, it’ll explode in your lap or in your face,” Pine says—but it was also much more portable. Inside public bathrooms, long-term stay hotels, car backseats, the hollowed-out cores of trees, meth could be brewed. It transformed from a rural drug into an anywhere drug, one that could proliferate in the cul-de-sacs of suburbs and exurbs as easily as wooded isolation.
Because each bottle acted as its own mini one-time-use meth lab, the process produces a lot of trash. Some cooks would bring garbage bags to the curb at all hours of the day and night; others would hoard the refuse inside their homes so police couldn’t sift through it, or try to set it on fire, only to realize the aluminum bottles used as makeshift beakers don’t burn.
By the early 2010s, when Pine was in the middle of his research process, meth lab reports were climbing again, and more states instituted their own requirements. Missouri was leading the country in the number of meth lab busts. The county he studied, which Pine referred to as “St. Jude” in the book and in our interview, was considered the meth capital of the United States. His reluctance to name the county comes partly from an urge to protect the sources he met there: Advertising the power of meth over a particular area can drive away doctors, nurses, and teachers, and exacerbate the problems of disinvestment that allowed the drug to thrive in the first place. But Pine also says he 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.”
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.”
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.”
The characters in The Alchemy of Meth find different pathways into addiction. Christian first takes meth at 12, when his mother and one of her revolving cast of boyfriends leaves out a foil-wrapped stash. Ray starts taking his dad’s prescription drugs at nine years old, and cycled through cocaine (snorting then shooting) before taking meth for the first time in 1991, and starting to cook in 2004. He thinks of himself as a priest, he tells Pine from prison, healing—and killing—his parishioners with his medicine. Joseph learned how to cook through a buddy, and shines with pride when he talks about making some of the purest stuff around. He claims the longest he’d stayed up tweaking was seven full days and nights.
As Pine follows his subjects—to motels they once visited, to their living rooms, and to prison—he traces a wide net of complicity. Big Pharma isn’t the only entity to blame, though interviews with establishment drug manufacturers are damning (an executive at Shire, the pharma outfit that makes Adderall, proudly speaks of “medicaliz[ing] everyday moods and emotions.”) Also implicated are the dollar-store chains and big-box home improvement retailers that stock the jugs of muriatic acid, propane tanks, and Pyrex pie plates that a cook needs to DIY a meth operation. Some stores cater explicitly to meth customers—selling the materials needed to create the drug on the same shelf, or stuffing a pamphlet advertising all the ingredients under a windshield.
“The consumer landscape—because these are ordinary, ubiquitous objects and chemicals—is automatically the perfect context for the production of meth,” Pine says. Alone, aluminum foil, camping stoves, Gatorade bottles, salsa jars, and cold tablets are just domestic objects; together, they are transformed into agents of chaos.
A lot has changed since Pine finished his research. Nationwide, reports of meth lab seizures have plunged in recent years, and Missouri’s have dwindled even more. Michigan replaced it as the nation’s meth-bust hotspot.
Statistics can be misleading, however, because much of the reporting depends on police success and discretion. (Jurisdictions are only required to report to the National Seizure System if they use federal funding to clean up labs after they’re found.) “In the county I studied, there was a soaring number of meth lab busts because they report really well,” says Pine. In states with lower reporting rates, police may have an interest in hiding the magnitude of the problem; in states with higher rates, officers may be armed with more personnel and resources, and therefore find more labs to bust.
And while rural cooking appears to be slowing, the use of the drug isn’t, fueled by Mexican drug cartels that have largely replaced makeshift domestic labs as major suppliers of the drug. “The meth problem has basically exploded across every race and social economic class that you can imagine,” Mark McClendon, of the Missouri Highway Patrol, told NPR in 2018. With government resources and media attention focused on the higher-profile opioid problem, and more potent Mexican-made versions of the drug widely available, the epidemic Pine outlines in his book is hardly over, even if many meth cooks have shuttered their operations.
And solutions to the crisis feel further from reach than ever.
The book’s final vignettes speak to that futility. Pine checks back in with the characters he met during his decade-plus of research, some of whom had come to view him as a lifeline. Christian writes to him from drug treatment—“thank you for the books and just being such a good person,” he writes. Ray strains to convince Pine that his drug-making days are over, thinking he might help him get out on parole. Maybe they could write a book together, he suggests. Joseph stops cooking and settles down to help raise his daughter. After she overdoses on heroin, Pine attends her wake.