CHICAGO — America's heartland may still be brimming with the bucolic simplicity of endless corn rows and towering silos. But it's also become home to one of the biggest scourges of modern society - drug use. For several years the Midwest has been an emerging market in the nation's drug trade, with everyone from Mexican drug kingpins to backyard methamphetamine makers pushing their wares. Yet the trend has also spawned a uniquely Midwestern response - one that draws on traditions of small-town, chat-over-the-fence closeness and a steely sense of personal responsibility honed by generations of early-rising farmers. In the past three weeks, for instance, residents of Des Moines, Iowa, have twice sniffed suspicious odors coming from nearby houses and alerted police to clandestine methamphetamine labs in their neighbors' basements or backyards. This region, long buffered from the latest national trends by geography, has in a sense become a trend-setter itself - in drug use and in antidrug efforts.
"Drugs used to pass through on their way to Chicago or wherever," says Dale Woolery, head of Iowa's antidrug program. "But dealers have a new market in rural America, so now some loads are stopping here. But we have a lot of good communities, and they've got their eye on the ball." Residents have good reason to pay attention. Last year Iowa had 63 busts of methamphetamine, or "meth," labs. This year the state may hit 200.
In Missouri, often considered the nation's meth capital, there were 455 lab seizures last year, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This year is on pace to hit 630. Meth - or "crank," as it's known on the street - is highly addictive and can be concocted with household ingredients such as cough medicine, ammonia, and lithium from watch batteries. Because it can be made virtually anywhere, it doesn't depend on a centralized - and expensive - distribution system. Thus, it's easy to find and is relatively cheap. Users like it for its long-lasting high, which can run for several days.
It's typically consumed by white men, who feel a sexual prowess when using it. But recently it has made inroads with women, who use it for quick weight loss. Meth's rise in rural America has been well publicized, but other drugs are also gaining a foothold. Thirty-two percent of Midwest treatment providers reported a rise in marijuana use last year, according to the White House's drug-policy office. And while cocaine use has leveled off in most major cities, there are hints of growing use in the Midwest. So far this year, for instance, DEA agents in Chicago have seized three times as much cocaine as they did in all of last year.
The growing number of busts in Chicago points up an important element of the Midwest's drug trade - Mexican cartels. These aggressive groups began wresting control of the drug trade away from Colombian cartels in the late 1980s, experts say. Now they dominate the business.
In the US they are known to set up shop among Mexican migrant workers, such as those who've flocked to Chicago or small Midwestern towns with meat-packing plants. Then they carve out a business niche. Missouri, for instance, has seen a rise in the amount of heroin use, especially among teens.
The attraction stems from "heroin chic" ads, such as those by Calvin Klein, says DEA spokeswoman Shirley Armstead in St. Louis. "Then some kids try it thinking if they can smoke it - and not use needles - they won't get hooked. That's just not true, she says, and may point to a naivete among such teens.
In the effort to combat the drug scourge, Midwesterners have followed their own traditions. One consistent trend is neighborly alertness. Small-town residents have always kept an eye on others out of a sense of neighborliness (or for a little gossip). Now they're putting their noses to work to cut crime.
PUBLICITY about meth labs - and how they can cause house-leveling explosions - has educated residents about alcohol or ether smells that emanate from in-home factories. "A lot of our lab busts are made by citizens calling in," says Mike Green of the Springfield, Mo., police department. "It's actually pretty easy" to sniff out a lab, he says. "There's a big difference between the smell of ether and a neighbor's barbecue." Midwesterners are also getting help from that new icon of small-town America - Wal-Mart. Anyone trying to buy big quantities of meth-making, over-the-counter drugs is rebuffed by a cash-register-imposed maximum. DEA agents say the program has slowed production. Finally, new laws intended to hold drug dealers more accountable are gaining ground in the Midwest. They enable users to sue dealers on product-liability grounds.
In the first suit of this kind, two Detroit drug dealers were ordered in 1995 to pay $1 million to the estate of a baby killed by her drug-addicted mother. Five of the 10 states that have passed the law are in the Midwest.
Last month, Rep. Tom Latham (R) of Iowa introduced a similar bill in Congress. In the Midwestern spirit of taking responsibility for one's actions, the bill would "shift the cost of the damage caused by the ... illegal drug market ... to those who illegally profit from that market," he recently explained.