In 2005, anthropologist Jason Pine began fieldwork in Jefferson County, Missouri, a rural area south of St. Louis known at the time as the U.S. meth capital.
Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that can be “cooked” at home using readily available ingredients like fertilizer and battery strips, a process Pine calls “alchemy in late-industrial form.” He spent 18 months, off and on, in churches, pawnshops, shooting ranges, and big-box stores, and he visited more than 200 defunct and operational meth labs.
He traced the experiences of cookers and users, probation officers and nonusers, and found that the drug’s hold on a community goes beyond addiction and lawbreaking. He calls the phenomenon “an ecology of practices” sustained by the desperation of people in low-wage, mind-numbing jobs and abetted by chemical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical interests. Although there are no easy fixes for communities affected by meth, he says, creating treatment programs and living-wage jobs would provide “some sense of future and stability.”
Now an assistant professor at SUNY Purchase, Pine is writing a book that intertwines the lives of nine Jefferson County residents. By exposing the social systems that sustain a meth culture while placing himself in the scene, he hopes to destigmatize those entangled in the drug’s proliferation.
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