Methanomics: How economic malaise can fuel a drug epidemic

In America, authorities often seem to view drug problems in a vacuum: recognizing the effects of addiction, but all too rarely considering the causes of consumption. Officially, the implication is that drug use is self-creating and self-perpetuating, instead of the result of larger processes and movements.

This is particularly clear in the case of methamphetamine, a brutally addictive drug that has increasingly proven the scourge of small-town America. In Methland: the Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding explores the causes of the epidemic, suggesting that meth's extensive popularity is rooted in the painful economic realities of a heartland that economics has left behind.
Among meth's many effects is its ability to increase energy and alertness, decrease the need for sleep, and give a sense of euphoria: a useful combination for people working multiple jobs or long hours. (Nazi Germany issued meth-laced chocolate to soldiers, sailors and pilots.) Under this definition, meth becomes a "vocational" drug, as opposed to a "recreational" drug, like marijuana, heroin, acid, or ecstasy. Many meth users don't initially approach it to relax, expand consciousness, or otherwise enjoy themselves, but to achieve (or maintain) economic viability.

The math is painfully simple: meth means more energy, which means longer work hours, which means more money.

Meth is certainly not the first vocational drug. In the 1980s, cocaine fueled Wall Street's frenzied stockbrokers, enabling many to work around the clock. And many Appalachian miners have turned to OxyContin to overcome the pain of work-related injuries. Meth's greatest tragedy may be that it exploits values that Americans hold dear. For workers struggling to survive, it offers an apparently perfect solution: it's cheap, easily produced, easily consumed, and immediately effective. Even as meth helps users work longer and earn more (not to mention "positive" effects like euphoria and weight loss), it also helpts them to maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency and overlook their situation's longterm hopelessness.

Of course, by the time meth consumers discover its negative side effects -- anorexia, hyperactivity, hypertension, greater risk of stroke and heart attack, and nearly insatiable sex drive -- they're already addicted. Even when a user's economic situation improves, meth can be impossible to shake once it grips its victims.

Like tobacco, meth creates its own (far smaller) economy. With addiction driving users to consume, and cheap ingredients making production infinitely replicable, meth generates a highly attractive and sustainable market. For entrepreneurs with basic chemical knowledge, setting up small-scale meth labs becomes a quick and easy way to make a lot of money. As state and federal restrictions on cold medication make it harder to gather the necessary ingredients, drug running across international borders seems likely to increase. And a desperate, hungry market ensures that meth marketers and manufacturers will find a way to circumvent laws and restrictions.

Restricting the sale of cold medications may fight the symptoms of meth addiction, but it completely overlooks the cause. As long as millions of rural Americans are unemployed or underemployed, meth will remain an attractive, if brutal solution. If the U.S. hopes to combat its meth problem, it must resolve its unemployment problem first.
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