A word of introduction: this article narrates the story of the silent plague that has been creeping across the United States for almost four decades, consuming and corrupting everything it touches like an unstoppable river of acid and filth, taking away lives, livelihoods and hope. It is the story of the American meth epidemic, and its blight upon rural and small-town America.

(It is, in fact, a chapter taken out of a book which I’m writing. The book tells the story of a crime spree that plagued a small American town, which — like so many others — had fallen victim to the meth invasion at one point. I decided that the spread of the drug was a tale worth being told in full on its own, and I chose to devote a chapter to the phenomenon, from its earliest roots to its grimmest effects.)

In the America of the 1970s and the 1980s, as stories of urban decay invaded TV and movie screens, painting the grim picture of city dwellers plagued by crime brought upon by the epidemics of crack cocaine, the rural setting seemed to be the untouched shelter, a getaway of whose serenity the city folk could only dream. It was a simple land of simple people, the patronizing city view held, but it was also unspoiled, untouched by drugs. It was innocent.

Then, slowly, like a rat creeping through the shadows, the change came. It was slow at first, but before most even realized what was happening, it was everywhere. And then, suddenly, small-town cops found themselves faced with a drug outbreak on an unprecedented scale.

It was unthinkable: tradition taught — and movies upheld the belief — that the regular worry of the deputy in a town of 300 souls would be cautioning kids who sneaked out to neck in a quiet lane with a hidden bottle of beer, or hauling the town drunk off the street and into jail for the night, over concern for his safety rather than as punishment. There might be the occasional shoplifter, and barroom brawls over the weekend, but nothing more serious. Of course, there were raids and searches, but those only targeted bootleg alcohol, and that was different. Moonshine had been bubbling discreetly in rural sheds since the days of the first illicit Appalachian distilleries in the 19th century. It may no longer have been done exclusively at night, under the light of the moon that gave the practice its name, but for all intents and purposes it was an honored heritage, and it didn’t seem dangerous. Neither did the moonshiners; in fact, in the public’s eye, they were all right, certainly closer to the cheerful folk on “The Dukes of Hazzard” than the demonic hill dwellers from “Deliverance.” And, after all, didn’t Al Capone and the abandoned experiment that was the Prohibition establish bootleg liquor as an American tradition?

Moonshine was one thing. Drug dealers, drug smugglers, drug manufacturers — that was all big city stuff. It didn’t happen in rural America. It wasn’t supposed to happen.

But now it was happening.

Suddenly, “meth lab” was the most common term the rural lawman was likely to hear. It was a misleading name, too, painting an undeservedly sophisticated picture of a sterile room full of flasks, funnels and beakers, with an amateur chemist clad in white and carefully inspecting a test tube. In fact, a meth lab is typically a one-room operation in a dirty, cramped, littered space, permanently sealed off from sunlight. Filthy plastic jugs that once held bleach or antifreeze are cast in the role of beakers and test tubes in this amateur theater, and paranoid “tweakers” living on borrowed time — even if they’re not using their own product, they’re inadvertently filling their bodies with toxins released during the “cooking” process — are the chemists.

***

Methamphetamine was born in Japan, where it was first synthesized in 1919, based on the earlier 1887 invention of amphetamine in Germany. Within a few years, its effects were being studied and compared to the euphoric rush experienced when the organism receives an adrenaline boost. The substance’s ability to combat fatigue and increase endurance caught the eye of the military, and when World War II broke out, methamphetamines were distributed among soldiers to keep them alert and more efficient. Both the Axis and the Allied side used the drug, but it was its effect on the Japanese society that brought on the world’s first meth epidemic: in addition to returning soldiers, already addicted to the drug, civilians were turning to it to ward off weariness and work longer hours. Soluble in water, it was usually injected or used as spray.

Human behavior — unless affected by a disorder — is normally inhibited, with desires and motivating drives being regulated by such factors as cultural rules and societal norms. One of the most commonly cited disinhibitors is alcohol: the act of drinking it (or, interestingly, even the perception of doing so) can weaken the inhibitions and impact the behavior, affecting risk assessment, impulsivity, social conventions, as well as cognitive, emotional, instinctual, perceptual and motor aspects. However, people in whom the sets of rules and norms are stronger and better anchored will be far less susceptible to that effect (which, according to researchers, may actually be a question of choice rather than a chemical reaction) and even if their behavior does change, it will be impacted to a far lesser degree. Conversely, those with lower social constraints will tend to act on their cravings with increased brazenness and disdain for law and order. The effect of methamphetamine as a disinhibitor surpasses that of alcohol, but its additional effects are even more dangerous and destructive.

The list of the drug’s side effects is a sobering read. “Low appetite, hyperactivity, excessive sweating, headache, irregular heartbeat, rapid breathing, abnormal blood pressure, high temperature, diarrhea, constipation, blurred vision, dizziness, tremors, acne, eczema, tooth decay and subsequent loss of teeth” is just the beginning of one listing of the physical effects. “Changes in libido, anxiety, depression, irritability, restlessness, grandiosity, repetitive and obsessive behaviors, psychosis, suicidal and violent behaviors” are listed among the psychological ones — yet so are “alertness, concentration, decreased fatigue, insomnia, increased confidence and sociability,” and the easiness of triggering those effects with meth has attracted many people who would otherwise find them difficult to evoke.

The substance entered America already in the 1950s, first used as an energy booster by tired workers, strained truckers and cramming students; it spread during the 1960s, now recommended by many as a recreational drug for its euphoric rush. It was even touted as diet medicine. At the time the supply of meth came from pharmaceutical companies, and as the 60s came to an end, new anti-drug regulations drastically reduced its distribution. For a while it seemed that meth would be just a small symptom of that wild experimental phase in America’s history, little more than a blip on the radar.

But those who were already hooked on it would not give up. They turned to their own inventiveness. The pharmaceutical laboratory was dead as the source of the drug. The rural meth lab was born.

***

“It spread primarily among the biker gangs of California,” was how law enforcement summarized the history of meth in the 1970s. Bikers did not like the term “gangs;” in their own parlance, they were “motorcycle clubs,” and in fact, that’s what most of them were — loose associations of blue-collar guys joined by camaraderie and the love of the free, open road, experienced from the seat of a souped-up motorcycle. Most of the clubs were created in the 1940s, and most of their founding members were ex-servicemen, fresh off the front, looking for a way to combine the feeling of the Army brotherhood with the excitement of the ride.

But some clubs are different — and proud of the fact.

In July 1947, a series of commotions and drunken scuffles broke out during a bikers’ rally in the town of Hollister, California. The sensationalized reports described the incident as a large-scale riot, with out of control bikers virtually taking over the city streets and terrorizing its citizens. The story spread out like a wildfire, firmly implanting — or cementing — the image of the unruly, violent, criminal biker in America’s mind.

According to the media, the inevitable shocked reaction of the public caused the American Motorcycle Association — the largest organization of motorcyclists in the US — to issue a statement which pointed out that not only did the vast majority of bike owners have nothing to do with the incident in Hollister, but that they were decent, law-abiding citizens, who only used their bikes for recreation. The statement supposedly described the Hollister troublemakers as a 1% minority which tarnished the good image of the remaining 99% of America’s bikers.

The statement — which the AMA would later deny making — backfired in a spectacular fashion: a number of clubs, offended by the words and infuriated by the attempt to suppress their self-declared non-conformity and separation from the rules set and observed by society, immediately and proudly declared themselves part of that notorious 1%. The term “one percenter” was born, and a new patch found its place on the vests and jackets of hundreds of bikers. Today, there are dozens of one-percenter outlaw motorcycle clubs, with thousands of members spread across not only America, but worldwide divisions, or “chapters.”

And, indeed, as the 1970s rolled in, many of their members looked favorably on meth. They knew the people who manufactured the drug, and they turned to distributing it via their own channels.

The Grim Reapers were one-percenters, and one of their members had a teenage wife named Lori. In spite of her young age, she was already dealing with numerous demons. Trying out meth was just a question of time for her, and when she finally did, she was intrigued after the first rush was over. She didn’t just want more — she saw an opportunity. Within weeks, she was using the club’s contacts in California to move the drug in her home state of Iowa. Within months, she was a major distributor, and then she set up her own production facilities. In no time, she was a multimillionaire with a fleet of cars, businesses, houses and land. She always had big ambitions, but she had never really thought that she could surpass the success of her brother Tom, a popular comedian and a rising Hollywood actor. She would regularly see his routines on TV, and occasionally got a taste of his glamorous life of a star. Now she was far richer and more influential, and the world, it seemed, was hers.

It came crashing down in 1990, ending with her imprisonment, followed by another stint in prison after the release, but by then her actions had already led to the creation of a virtual meth economy that spread across the Midwestern US like an unstoppable hydra. The mythological metaphor was an apt symbol for the new epidemic: its toxicity tainted and eventually destroyed everything it touched, and for every tentacle of a lab or a distributor that went down, three new ones would appear. In less than a decade, meth had become the bane of rural communities across America. The introduction of the drug in the 1950s and its boom during the 1960s were nothing compared to the last decade of the twentieth century. The new spread of meth hit the rural communities across America just as their economy began shaking. The effects of the changes that would lead to the rise of corpocracy were being felt; jobs were disappearing across the Midwest and a wave of farm foreclosures hit the small towns. Their denizens were finding themselves out of prospects and out of hope. But there seemed to be an easy way to push sorrows aside — and unlike cocaine, the exclusive party drug of the high-flying, big-city “elites,” meth was cheap and unglamorous, and now readily available.

The drug’s effects on the mind and the body were evident to anyone but the users themselves. The snowball effect on those around them was prolonged and thus less visible, but even more devastating: small county budgets were increasingly being allocated to dealing with the results of meth use rather than to the development of the communities. Instead of funding a community center, a county would be forced to spend money on repairing damage to property vandalized by thieves looking for anything that might be sold quickly and easily. Instead of maintaining infrastructure, a council would be forced to foot the legal, medical and social bills of meth-related crimes. And even though some societal effects of the meth spread were seemingly predictable, it would often only be the case in hindsight. Sometimes, people only became aware of their inevitability after the fact. For instance, rural families whose farm equipment was stolen by a meth addict would find themselves unable to continue working properly, their means of support suddenly gone, their lives effectively brought to a halt. Such occurrences, multiplied and repeated, would quickly pile up. Combined, the problems formed a weight too heavy for a small rural community to handle, destabilizing it in no time. Those who could, often fled; those who could not or would not, remained — and once this vicious cycle began somewhere, it continued until the small local net of societal norms was rotten and disintegrating, and places that once could serve as proud illustrations of “small-town Americana” morphed into dank littered ghettos, abandoned by people and hope…

The drug gained a series of colloquial names that referred either to its effects or its appearance –crystalline powder of various colors, or transparent crystals to be smoked, usually white, grayish or blue, in its most common variant. There was “crank” and there was “go”, there was “crystal” and there was “ice”, there was “glass” and there was “zoom…”

And, of course, there was the queen of the names — “speed.” And those who abused it, those who always chased its next rush, were the “speed freaks.” They came in all variants. There were the jittery, rodent-faced scarecrows, nervously clawing at their bodies to the point of bleeding and digging scars in the flesh, as they tried to scratch away the itchiness they were constantly feeling — the itchiness that never disappeared, because it was imaginary, an illusion brought on by meth as yet another side effect. There were those barely alive, shuffling about like zombies, functioning like ancient clockwork machines, still running on their last tick, but inside already consumed beyond repair by rust and corruption. And then there were the worst, the sociopaths and psychopaths, parasitic and lethal enough by design, their untamed urges now fully unleashed by the drug, the alertness that was already part of their nature pushed even further, into acute awareness — and their carnivorous ability to detect victims and zero in on them increased tenfold. Those ones were enjoying the rush.

It increased the thrill of the hunt.

Author, investigative journalist, game designer. I also poke around captivating mysteries, curious crimes and intriguing events on http://www.crimeintime.com