Time was that connoisseurs of delirious drug war propaganda contented themselves with on-demand showings of Reefer Madness, the occasional late-night rerun of the infamous "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet, and the odd parody of the "This is your brain on drugs…" ad campaign.
Now, thanks to Rolling Stone—a magazine that still occasionally inveighs against drug war abuses and still occasionally gets attacked by conservatives for supposedly promoting drug use—you can get a Sonny Bono-quality irony fix just by wandering down to your local newsstand.
Go to page 48 of RS's Issue 914 (the one with the Justin Timberlake cover, dated January 23), and read through "Plague in the Heartland," by Paul Solotaroff, the latest entry in the dubious but endlessly rewritten journalistic genre known as the "new drug of choice" story. Once upon a time, the drug under scrutiny was marijuana, then cocaine, then heroin, then Ecstasy, then pot again. Just recently PCP—better known to anyone who ever sat through a Quinn Martin Production as "Angel Dust"—got its requisite 15 column inches of infamy. This week's special guest villain? Methamphetamine—a.k.a. "crystal meth," "crank," and, says the federal government anyway, "redneck coke."
All the clichés of the form are on display in "Plague in the Heartland," worn down every bit as smooth as the teeth of any longtime crank fiend. Summary claims to ubiquity, hyper-addictiveness, and national crisis? "Cheap, easy to make and instantly addictive, crystal meth is burning a hole through rural America," shouts the very sub-headline of the story (which is, alas, not currently available online). Hyperbolic claims of the intoxicating effects of the drug of the moment? How about this gem, from a doctor who treats meth addiction: "It was so powerful that you had a rush like nothing before it….It was the chemical equivalent of ten orgasms at once." (The same Dr. Feelbad observes of meth casualties, "You see them in the streets now, sleeping in boxes and hustling survival sex.")
An undeniably sad story of a mother grieving the drug-related loss of her innocent-yet-curiously-implicated son who now lectures others on how to stop the madness? We get treated to this scene, in which just such a figure announces to a diffident school audience: 'Five months ago…[my son] was brutally murdered by a boy in a parking lot. My son was brilliant, the jewel of my life, and the kid who killed him was worthless scum who still shows no remorse. The only thing in common was they'd both used meth that night…." That's paired, of course, with the insistence that this crisis is about—egad!—the white middle class. "These aren't no-tooth yokels from trailer parks," reports the police chief of Granite Falls, Washington, where the story is set. "They're kids whose moms and dads work at Boeing."
Exoticized, sinister "other" who doesn't care about the effects of what he's selling and wraps himself in the Constitution to boot like some goddamned sick tobacco company executive? Solotaroff, with a police guard, walks up to a notorious meth factory site and interrogates a white-trash specimen who is equal parts Deliverance technical consultant and ZZ Top roadie: "He has broad logger's shoulder, a chest-length beard and eyes that dart from side to side, pulsing in their sockets." After being accused of cooking meth, the freak indignantly produces a "hand-blown crystalline pipe" and thunders to the author: "You see this? I made this. I'm an American citizen who makes pipes…As for what people smoke in them, that's their deal. Their right as American citizens!"
To his credit, Solotaroff doesn't stint on the uncorroborated police tale of horrible-deeds-done-while-high, always the highlight of the "new drug of choice" story, but especially so when printed in the pages of the once self-consciously antiauthoritarian Rolling Stone. You've doubtless heard the fake stories about the college kids so whacked on LSD that they went blind staring at the sun, the hippie babysitter who cooked an infant, and the drug-induced suicide of Diane "Gonna Fly Now" Linkletter. "Plague in the Heartland" adds at least two chapters to that infinite treasury of too-good-to-check-out urban legends. "Since methamphetamine entrenched itself in this former logging town," writes Solotaroff, the police chief's "work life has consisted of responding to one outrage after another, each more numbing than the last. The month before, there were the tweakers (as meth users are known) who clubbed to death seventeen newborn calves. Before that, it was the boy, high out of his mind, who fancied his thick skull bulletproof and blew much of it off with a .25."
And then there's glaring omission that fully seals the deal: actual hard evidence of any sort of increasing use—as opposed to increased police activity (as seen in increased busts and the like). To be sure, Solotaroff quotes a former county prosecutor who "estimates that two-thirds of the violent criminals he tries use meth, cook it or sell it." There's also the SWAT commander who claims, "I could hit you over the head with lots more numbers," but who doesn't, instead citing "what's happened to ER admissions in the last years" and the "skyrocketing increase in domestic violence." No, the SWAT commander is more comfortable with sweeping statements such as "A whole generation is being lost out there, and we'll never get that back." The addiction doctor who likens meth to multiple orgasms claims that "according to published numbers, there are almost 10 million people who've tried meth in this country, although the feds say it's only 1.8 [million]." Published numbers! There's a solid measure!
As for those feds—who have every reason to exaggerate the use and abuse of drugs, as the bigger the crisis, the bigger their budget— their latest fully available stats tell a far less incendiary tale about meth, as can be seen in their multi-year estimates of first-time use as well as lifetime (4.0 percent of Americans 12 years and older cop to doing meth at least once), past-year (0.5 percent), and past-month use (0.2 percent).
Indeed, they tell the sort of story that one used to expect from Rolling Stone, one less about supposed panics in needle park and more about hysterical, self-interested authorities co-opting the press. At the very least, longtime readers of RS could be forgiven for wondering when the violence and mayhem the story links to methamphetamine would be laid at the feet of the substance's black-market status and not its supposedly uniquely perverse effects.