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A tale of methamphetamine, drug cartels and an amateur chemist named Fester.

Wednesday, Feb 9 2000

A tale of methamphetamine, drug cartels and

an amatThe Politics of Meth

In Tempe, Arizona, in a neighborhood made up of the kind of strip malls and food franchises that are becoming the interchangeable building blocks of 21st-century America, there‘s a store called Underground Books. Inside, the bookstore offers comics, survivalist tomes, the usual array of anti-government tracts, and books that don’t fall into easy categories, such as a Japanese volume of photos of bandaged women. But the store‘s best-selling writer is a man who goes by the pseudonym Uncle Fester, author of such classics as Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture (now in its fifth edition) and Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture.

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”It makes me uneasy,“ a heavily tattooed sales clerk explains. ”But this is free speech. What can you do? Usually, I can tell at a glance when someone’s coming in to buy it. I just point them over to the proper aisle.“

In Jim Hogshire‘s introduction to Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture, he suggests that Uncle Fester’s books embody ”true Yankee ingenuity,“ and recommends they be put ”on your shelf next to the works of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.“ But unfortunately, the introduction continues, in the ‘90s ”America came to depend on Mexican laboratories for its crank needs, putting millions at the mercy of foreigners. Foreigners who don’t necessarily share [our] values.“ So it is the duty of every patriotic American, the writer concludes, to make meth with Uncle Fester‘s formulas.

And so go the geopolitics of d-methamphetamine, the only hard drug produced in America, the rapidly spreading drug that, as the many posters and billboards attest, is now seen as a serious health problem from West Hollywood to the Bootheel of Missouri.

But after spending weeks on the trail of meth across America, I’ve come to believe that its story transcends the usual angst-and-hypodermic tales of addiction, because the story of methamphetamine is only incidentally about the drug itself, only incidentally about people ruining their lives. Primarily, it‘s about why meth has spread so far so quickly in the past few years, and that’s mainly a story about what this country is and is becoming -- which is to say, like almost everything else about us in this era of globalization, it‘s a business story.

The Dichotomy of Meth

In a low, unmarked building in Lancaster, L.A. Impact, the county’s multi-agency meth-lab task force, operates from an office decorated with NO TWEAKER posters. One Thursday afternoon, an officer from the task force takes me in his pickup truck into the nearby desert, where the widely scattered roads still have city street numbers, such as 210th Avenue, but where there can be half a mile or more between shacks. With the wind blowing, it feels a bit like being in an outtake from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind: We are looking for something alien, yet close to home. Our destination is a tumbledown shed where, some months earlier, a large meth lab, a superlab, operated. The lab closed down before the police found it, but after it moved away, local people came and dug up many cubic yards of dirt where it once stood. ”They take the dirt and try to extract any meth residue that might have spilled out,“ the officer explains to us. ”We call that a dirt lab.“

Even with the superlab long gone, along with a lot of the earth that it stood on, the shed reeks of strong chemicals. ”That headache you have now,“ the officer explains, ”you get that every time you visit one of these places.“ As we stand in the ruined shed, headachy, looking into the pit of the dirt lab, the Close Encounters feeling becomes more intense, as if we are viewing the spot where some great force has risen out of its grave, and now is loose upon our land.

On the drive back, the officer mentions that there is another, far more common kind of meth lab than the large-scale superlabs of the sort we‘ve just seen. It’s a type cops officially refer to as a ”user lab,“ and unofficially as a ”mom-and-pop lab,“ or ”Beavis and Butt-head lab.“ We drive by a lonely, abandoned house. ”That‘s the kind of place where you could find that kind of lab,“ the officer says. These are the labs of the local news, of dangerously strung-out tweakers, of fires and explosions in house trailers, of endangered children. ”By now, the Lancaster Fire Department knows that if they see glassware in the ashes, they should give us a call,“ the officer explains. Then he adds: ”Glassware and pornography.“ Pornography? ”Yeah,“ says the officer.

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