In order for someone to become a marijuana user according to Becker, they had to meet three conditions. First, the person has to learn how to smoke pot in a way that will produce effects. For example, that you must inhale pot smoke into your lungs and hold it in order to get high. Second, a person must learn to recognize the effects of smoking pot. The way you’re giggling hysterically at Beavis and Butthead? That’s part of what it means to be high. Third, you have to learn to enjoy the sensations of getting high.
Now, like much sociology, at first glance you might think to yourself, “Wow, that’s stupid.” Who wouldn’t enjoy the sensations of getting high? And I would answer, my paranoid friend in college who used to rave about the aliens who were coming to get him when he would get high. And anyone else you’ve ever met who doesn’t smoke pot because it makes them paranoid or they feel like it just doesn’t do anything for them. All of these steps are social, and happen in the context of experienced users who teach you how to get high, what it means to get high, and convince you that getting high feels good. So what Becker contributes to the study of drug use is its deeply social aspect. This is what Reding’s researcher means by the ‘social identity’ of meth. It reached so far as a drug in part because of the ways in which it fleshed with our cultural values.
And also, of course, because like many drug epidemics, it prayed on a group of people who were already being beaten down by society. In the case of crack, it was mostly inner city African-Americans. For meth, it’s mostly poor, rural white folks. Reding figures out that the story of meth is also the story of the demise of rural America. In Oelwein, it was no coincidence that the meth epidemic bloomed right about the time the local meat packing plant was bought out and lowered wages from $15/hour to $6/hour while cutting benefits. Reding suggests interesting connections between the consolidation of agriculture in the hands of a few large mega-corporations like Cargill and Tyson and the consolidation of the meth trade in five or so Mexicana drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). And then when the few businesses left in rural towns like Oelwein start recruiting Mexicans workers, they create an easy route for meth to cross borders.
Methland answered a few of my questions about meth, but it raised a whole lot more. Somewhere inside all the research Reding collected, and some he did not, is a really fascinating and great sociological study of meth and what it tells us about contemporary culture. I’m hoping someone writes it soon.