Embedded in Austin

On the ground in one of Minnesota's meth hot spots

It makes sense that meth is principally a rural phenomenon. First, of course, where there are farms, there is the anhydrous ammonia required for refining the meth; it's a commonly used fertilizer. A town like Austin also offers ready access to the other necessary ingredients. Places like Shopko, HyVee, Target, K-Mart, and various hardware stores and farm suppliers make relatively easy the acquisition of such meth prerequisites as cold capsules, white gas, and camera batteries. As such bulk purchases have begun to raise red flags with retailers, meth producers have begun shoplifting the ingredients instead. And the rural terrain itself affords endless advantages.

"This is a conspicuous drug to produce right in town," Philipp said. "It stinks, for one thing, and you'll have people coming and going from these houses at all hours. But meth is also a very mobile, portable drug, and there's a lot of country out there around us. These guys can drive out into the country and make this stuff out of the trunk of their car on a gravel road and then toss all their garbage in the ditch. They can pull into a campground or go back in the woods. They'll rent these farmhouses or trailers, produce a bunch of the stuff and then just pull up stakes. It's very hard to pin these people down."

Enforcement is further complicated by a combination of technical sophistication and paranoia on the part of the dealers, who use global positioning systems to stash and track packages of the drug in rural ditches. Local authorities are also seeing more meth labs wired with all manner of surveillance equipment. Occasionally a beat-up thousand-dollar trailer home beached on a scrub lot in the country turns out to have a $20,000 security system.

Craig Lassig

The other factor in meth's grip on rural areas is an explanation that has for the most part eluded the adults wrestling with the problem. But it's the first explanation kids offer for the drug's popularity.

"This place is boring," one teenager told me at the municipal parking lot one night. Travis and his friends are all 15 to 17, and marked with the insecure braggadocio of small-towners everywhere. They all admit to having used meth or knowing others who have. "It's everywhere," Travis said. "And it's not just the so-called bad kids who do it, it's everyone. There's all kinds of kids who are doing it.

"And that first time is great," he goes on. "Everyone will tell you that. Everyone will talk about the first time. It's really intense, and you feel powerful."

"The girls like it because they lose weight," a friend adds.

"They lose a lot of weight," Travis said. "Even the guys. You'll see these big jocks lose like 40 pounds in six months, and their parents don't even wonder what's going on."


The next day I drove out to a house in the country to meet with Richard, a 19-year-old now living in self-imposed exile from the world of meth. The farmhouse where Richard is staying is marooned in the middle of fields and gravel roads a considerable distance from Austin. When I finally found the place I was taken aback by how isolated it was. The modest house was situated on a farm lot down a long gravel driveway, and there were no vehicles to be seen. Richard, a skinny, slightly hunched kid, met me at the back door.

"I was 16 when I first started smoking meth," he said. Previously he had been a decent enough student. Despite an attention-deficit problem for which he took Ritalin, he managed to hold a B average.

"It's an amazing high," he said. "You could drink yourself stupid, and after one hit of meth you were stone cold sober. When you're on it you have these incredibly intense thoughts. People think you're just whacked out of your head, but I was having very serious thoughts, thinking about my life and my family. I felt like my mind grew so much when I was using meth. I could just sit down and read books, which I'd never really done before. I was supposed to write this one-page report for school on the band Tool, and I ended up writing ten pages. It was amazing. My teacher was an old lady, a churchie, and she was just blown away."

After a relatively short time, Richard discovered what so many other tweakers had discovered before him. He couldn't quite hit those old peaks anymore. "You're always trying to capture that first high again," he said. "It's never, ever gonna happen, but you keep trying."

Richard started skipping school and got suspended during his sophomore year. After his mom left for work each morning, "it was just game on for that day. Everybody would come over and we'd just sit around smoking meth all day. I've had forty or fifty people in a room this size, just elbow to elbow, everybody doing it. It wasn't just white-trash kids, it wasn't country kids. It was jocks, rich kids, city kids, everybody was doing meth.

"And it wasn't the Mexican Mafia or the White Power guys from California. They may have brought it in here, but it would have happened without them. I had a friend whose mom would buy it for us and we'd sit right there in her house getting fucked up. I used to smoke it with one of my teacher's husbands. It was everywhere."

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