American breadbasket's crystal meth 'harvest'

'Invasion Iowa" is a new TV reality show. A fake film crew descends on a small town and pretends to make a science-fiction movie. The locals try out for the "parts." The humor is gentle. This is the Iowa of apple pies, tidy lawns, and nice farm folk.

But Iowa has another reality, and there's nothing funny about it. Iowa has been invaded, all right, and the ravager is crystal meth.

Methamphetamine is possibly the worst drug of all time. It quickly clamps a hard addiction onto users. The end product is hallucinations and paranoiac rages. People trying to kick meth may need two years to even start feeling normal.

Crystal meth ruins lives. Iowa broke up 1,472 meth labs last year alone. And the state now cares for 1,000 children abused by their parents' meth habits. Methamphetamine is responsible for 62 percent of the admissions into state prisons. Iowa's heartache is shared across the heartland - from Idaho to Nebraska to Indiana to Oklahoma.

And how has the Bush administration responded? By cutting drug-treatment programs. The proposed new budget would also slash federal funding for meth-related law enforcement and environmental cleanup by 50 percent.

The states try to do what they can. Iowa has just passed a stiff law limiting people's ability to buy cold medicines at drugstores. Sudafed, Dimetapp, and other common cold remedies contain pseudoephedrine - a key ingredient in methamphetamine.

Meth is not a ghetto drug. Its users are over 90 percent white. And while the epidemic is spreading, it remains concentrated in America's heartland. There are several reasons. One is privacy. People can cook meth in their kitchens or bathrooms. And it's easier to hide such activities in a rural area.

You can go to a Wal-Mart and buy almost everything you need to make methamphetamine. Tupperware containers can hold the acids. The only ingredient not widely sold is anhydrous ammonia. But it's easily found on farms, which use it for fertilizer.

Homemade meth can unleash a more intense high than drugs coming from California or Mexico, which tend to be less pure. And rural drug addicts might prefer buying from local sources - and avoiding the savagery of big-time dealers.

Why is such an awful drug so popular? The obvious attraction is the high. (With time, of course, the pleasure surge gets harder to reach.) People also take meth to lose weight - which accounts for the high number of female addicts, many of them mothers.

Meth also keeps people awake. Social workers say hard times in rural America have people holding two or more jobs. The tired drudges take meth to keep going. Marvin Van Haaften, Iowa's drug czar, says he came across a farmer who used meth during the harvest season. The drug helped him work three days straight. The farmer is now in jail.

Meth has become especially popular among truck drivers. Truckers call it High Speed Chicken Feed. At truck stops, meth sellers run right up to drivers' cabs with their wares.

The saddest victims are children. Meth fumes coming from the kitchen damage their lungs. And their meth-addicted parents often neglect them. Police raiding home-based meth labs say they've opened refrigerators to find meth oil but no milk. The children are often dirty.

Law enforcement hates the scourge. Wherever there is meth production, there are lots of loaded weapons. Three Oklahoma highway-patrol officers have been killed in meth-related cases. Kansas named its own law restricting the sale of cold medicines after Matt Samuels, a county sheriff who was murdered while trying to arrest a man cooking meth in his home.

When it comes to antisocial behavior, the meth trade knows no bottom. One drug maker reportedly ordered his child to shoot anyone coming near the family lab.

Our legislators in Washington, meanwhile, don't seem very interested. They prefer lining up to denounce the use of steroids in Major League Baseball.

The Defense Department is requesting - and will probably get - $257 million to slow the drug trade in Afghanistan. After all, heroin trafficking helps fund terrorism.

There's a difference, one supposes, between foreigners terrorizing Americans and Americans terrorizing each other. But an invasion is still an invasion. Iowa knows all about it.

Froma Harrop is an editorial writer at the Providence Journal. ©2005 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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