When I first heard politicians and journalists refer to the Opioid Crisis, I selfishly rolled my eyes. Oh, now you care, I thought. Now that a drug has affected the lives of middle-class and wealthy white kids, y’all care. When my friends’ families were dropping like flies while their insides were rotting from the inside out, where were you? When people’s homes were becoming radioactive and setting fire, where were you? When someone’s family member lost their children, their teeth, and their lives, where the fuck were you?
This is selfish for two reasons. First, the Black community has echoed this sentiment for decades since the disgusting Reagan/Bush treatment of the Crack Epidemic. Second, drug abuse of any kind demands and has always demanded communal and policy intervention, and the Opioid Crisis is still ravaging the poor—as my recent trip to the heart of Appalachia revealed for me. All of that being said, the classist framing of the methamphetamine problem in America is so blatant and inaccurate that I struggle to rationalize the lived experience with statistical data.
Between 2004 and 2010, my hometown of Russellville had seven meth lab busts. According to the same data, there were 20 meth lab busts in all of Franklin County during the same period. I’m not sure where these next folks got their data so take it with a grain of salt, but one source claims there are 913 known meth addicts in my hometown. They also voted my hometown the most white trash city in all of Alabama. Don’t ever say I never won anything.
According to one 2016 estimate, 9,815 residents live in Russellville. That means roughly one in ten of the people I grew up around and came to love have used or know someone who uses meth.
Meth is, for some reason, one of the most culturally jovial drugs. Amy Schumer made a skit on Inside Amy Schumer about a couple in a trailer during a few meth explosions. Breaking Bad, while not set in the South, uses many “white trash” tropes during the series entirely devoted to meth. In the most recent season of Shameless, Frank and his kids inherit several pounds of meth from a dead loved one. I recently tweeted an article that I found funny out of Washington state—a man did meth, loaded up his car with AK-47s, and claimed Donald Trump called him to fight “the Lizard People.” I see how it’s easy to find that story funny. I also see the inherent paradox of finding a drug that literally cannibalizes users by rotting their blood and organs “humorous.”
It’s my opinion that meth ravages poor people because it’s one of the few drugs that someone with rudimentary knowledge of recipes and chemistry can make. It doesn’t take outlandish chemical resources to process, and most recipes call for a Sudafed like concoction and a bathtub. That’s not to diminish the danger but, coming from a region that perfected sugar-stilled moonshine, you can see how the DIY approach to a high is enticing. Couple that with a trailer, an explosion, outlandishly high behavior, rotted teeth, and holes through a person’s flesh and I suppose there is some humor to caricatures of meth addicts.
As with most Southern things, the reality isn’t the caricature.
The life expectancy of someone who starts doing meth is between 5-8.5 years, according to multiple different sources and rehab clinic data. This accounts for ‘hardcore’ users, probably because meth is such an addictive drug that I doubt recreational meth users even exist. Perhaps they do.
In 2000, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Alan Leshner, did an interview on PBS’s Frontline. In this interview, Dr. Leshner extensively refers to meth as the highest drug-related public health crisis. He never mentions the South and claims that meth addicts “tend to be wealthier.” In connection with sex, queer club subculture, and drug use, it’s pretty clear that meth use has risen in the gay community among gay men. According to this Vice article, meth, as a party drug, is more often used in risky sexual environments among gay men than other identity subsets such as poor or homeless users. The author connects the HIV/AIDS crisis with drug use—that many in the community turned to meth out of fear. I’m thinking about Teddy on Queer as Folk. In one season, Ted loses his job, feels useless and unwanted, and starts going to Chemsex parties where he ultimately becomes addicted. My point is that culturally we’ll act like Jim Bob cooking meth in his trailer down in Tennessee is funny. It’s not the reality. Sure, Jim Bob knows somebody that uses meth. He might be addicted himself. But Damion in San Francisco’s queer community goes to raves a lot with friends. Damion might know people that use meth. Both Jim Bob and Damion need help—and our collective portrait of meth users erases Damion completely and laughs at Jim Bob.
I went to school with kids—now adults—that are surrounded by opioids, fentanyl, and meth. I’ve been a hypocrite, laughing about the boy that closed Fred’s pharmacy in my town because he kept dropping through the ceiling to be found with fentanyl patches on his balls the next day. Maybe we hide the havoc these drugs wreak on the South because we love to hate the mythical poor, uneducated Southerner.
When I roll my eyes about the Opioid Crisis, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because no one seemed to care when the folks I knew as a kid made the front page of “Busted in the Shoals” while their kids were in State custody, grimacing in their mugshots while their flesh detached from their bones and their veins struggled to keep them alive. It’s because they didn’t get help before their teeth began to rot, their body began cannibalizing itself, or they died from being unable to not self-poison. We’ve made meth a fiction, erased the lives of these ‘waste’ people, and I don’t know if the collective political imagination can ever be revised enough to care about the lives we’ve lost.