Independence’s rap as Meth City USA needs tweaking
A city’s reputation dies hard.
Philadelphia still answers for the day in December 1968 when football fans there booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus during his halftime appearance at an Eagles game. Cleveland is a place where the rivers spontaneously combust. Car stolen? Happens everywhere. But auto theft as it’s uniquely practiced in Newark, New Jersey, is the subject of a Spike Lee-produced feature film.
Independence celebrates its connection with Harry S. Truman, whose name and likeness are inescapable in Missouri’s fourth-largest city. Wild About Harry isn’t just a state of mind — it’s the name of a men’s shop on Independence Square. But Independence has an issue similar to Philadelphia’s rep for being cruel, even to the jolly.
Years after Truman’s death, Independence became known for something else, something illicit.
It’s been called a “methamphetamine capital of the United States.”
Independence is hardly the only city to have had an unofficial title bestowed upon it, but it continues to be associated with the production and the consumption of the drug known for causing teeth to rot and sheds to explode. The city’s designation as a meth capital, for instance, was noted by The New York Times last October. One imagines that a link to the Times story felt like a death notice when it circulated throughout Independence.
The city’s status as a “hub for methamphetamine abuse” is also noted in the recent book Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden. A young writer named Brook Wilensky-Lanford traveled to Independence while compiling research for her book, which chronicles various efforts to pinpoint the location of the Garden of Eden. (Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, said Independence was the City of Zion.) In her description of the city, Wilensky-Lanford mentions meth before she mentions dear old Truman.
Why is Independence known as a tweaker town? The most commonly cited culprit is an article that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1998. The story described Jackson County as the “methamphetamine capital of America,” noting the drug’s “particularly tight clamp” on Independence.
At the time of the article, more clandestine meth labs were being shut down in Missouri than in any other state. And what was true in 1998 remains true today. Missouri was No. 1 in meth-lab busts in 2010, according to data collected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
That Independence’s reputation for meth abuse is based in part on the diligence of law enforcement annoys the city’s chief of police, for one. The chief, Tom Dailey, complained at a City Council meeting earlier this year that “meth capital” was a misnomer. “It should be the meth-busting capital,” he said, according to a report in The Kansas City Star.
But not even that appears to be true anymore. Just seven methamphetamine “incidents” in Jackson County were reported to the Missouri Highway Patrol in the first half of 2011.
Meth has not disappeared, of course. The majority of drug cases prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in western Missouri involve methamphetamine. What has changed is the source of the drug. When the feds make a big bust, the meth they seize is likely to have originated in Mexico.
Still, home chemists continue to toil over Pyrex dishes, producing meth in gram-sized batches. Any drug that gets people high and can be produced in a soda bottle will have a constituency. Last year, police in Kansas City found meth labs in a homeless camp and at an abandoned hospital.
The Rolling Stone article was titled “America’s Drug: Postcards From Tweakville.” To drive home the point that meth was ravaging the heartland, the editors interspersed photographs of the Santa-Cali-Gon Days festival and the Truman home with images of drug busts and burned-out houses.
The writer, Peter Wilkinson, described how meth was at one time a “West Coast phenomenon, a made-in-the-desert buzz supplied and distributed by biker gangs.” The recipe found its way to Missouri. Before long, the cookers in these parts could brag about the purity of their concoctions.
Wilkinson crowned Michael Wayne Duncan the “meth king of Jackson County.” Duncan cooked in garages and out-of-the-way shacks. One of his rural labs blew up. A man died, and Duncan wound up in intensive care. Once the skin grafts took, Duncan resumed cooking and selling. A prosecutor would later call him a “guru” with an “almost religious” following. Duncan eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to manufacturing meth. Sentenced to prison, he is eligible for release in 2014.
Duncan didn’t introduce Jackson County to methamphetamine. If that distinction belongs to one man, it’s Willi Olsen, a Vietnam veteran who lost part of his stomach in battle. Olsen became a truck driver after the war. He lived in California and sold primarily to other long haulers before expanding his meth operation to Missouri. Wary of transporting the drug in false-bottom suitcases, he eventually asked two cooks he knew to move from San Bernardino to Independence.
One of Olsen’s cooks died of heart failure. (He was 25.) The other broke with Olsen and shared his cooking recipe with the locals. In addition to word of mouth, underground books like Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture disseminated the knowledge.
Cheap and relatively easy to produce, the drug known as “redneck cocaine” found a particularly ardent following in Missouri. What was it that made this part of the country so receptive to the drug and its manufacture? Was it an outlaw sensibility? Cheap housing stock? Neighborliness? U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, then the Jackson County prosecutor, suggested to Rolling Stone that heartland meth cookers were as eager to share their recipes as members of a garden club. “In New York, no one would ever share,” she said.
The Rolling Stone article painted a dramatic portrait. But it was actually not the first instance of Independence being labeled a meth capital.
In 1997, The Christian Science Monitor published a story about meth’s hold on Independence. According to the Monitor‘s piece, authorities busted 75 meth labs in 1996 — “the largest number per capita in the nation.”
“In fact,” the article continued, “Guy Hargreaves, the unofficial ‘meth czar’ at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Washington, calls Independence the meth capital of the United States — and worries that it could be a sign of things to come.”
So it wasn’t a rock magazine that first branded Independence with the scarlet M. It was a cop.
If Rolling Stone readers made it past the jump, past the reviews of the latest Pearl Jam record and Mira Sorvino film, they learned that Independence and its surrounding communities were facing their demons.
“Jackson County,” Wilkinson wrote in his 1998 article, “has become something of a model for its meth-eradication strategy.”
The story noted that the county had an anti-drug sales-tax fund, “the first of its kind.” The fund, known as COMBAT, pays for drug investigations, prosecutions, jail cells and treatment. Initiated in 1989 and reauthorized by voters in 2009, the tax raised almost $19 million last year.
One COMBAT program that has been emulated in other cities is Drug Court. The program gives nonviolent offenders the opportunity to pursue treatment in lieu of criminal prosecution. “Graduates” have their charges dismissed and even receive gift cards for gas or groceries.
David Fry is the current Drug Court commissioner. His gray hair falls below his collar, and he speaks with a gentle voice, even when he’s calling out the names on his docket.
On Tuesday afternoons, Fry monitors the progress of Drug Court participants in a beige-paneled room on the first floor of the county courthouse in Independence. Fry sits behind a bench that judges use to orient the potential jurors who arrive at the beginning of each week.
Most of the case files that Fry opens on this day indicate compliance with the program. “Keep up the good work,” Fry tells one offender.
But he has seen enough drug-test results to know when something is amiss. He softly questions one young man about the diluted state of his urine. “My faith in humanity is gone,” Fry says. “Not that I don’t love everybody. But my faith is gone.”
Two men leave the courtroom in handcuffs. One had thrown a punch at his mother. The other, a middle-aged man with a ponytail and sunken cheeks, had tested positive for methamphetamine a sixth time. “You keep doing meth,” Fry matter-of-factly tells him.
When court adjourns, Fry expresses sympathy for the jail-bound meth user, who was at least disciplined enough to report for testing. To Fry, the string of positives is not defiance but a cry for help.
Fry says that when a bed opens up, he will move the meth addict out of jail and into a facility better equipped to address his problem. “I’m not wearing him out with treatment yet,” he says.
Oliver “Glenn” Boyer has been the sheriff of Jefferson County, Missouri, since 1993. He has supervised the dismantling of hundreds of meth labs
“Unfortunately, when you take down a lab, there’s three things you normally find,” Boyer tells The Pitch. “You find guns. You find kids. And you find dogs.”
South of St. Louis, Jefferson County reports more meth-lab “incidents” — a catchall term that includes not just functioning labs but also glassware caches and dump sites — than any other county in Missouri.
Boyer has 10 people working on nothing but labs. He had 15 dedicated meth cops before budget cuts took a toll. Still, even with a reduced force, Jefferson County reported 228 lab incidents in 2010, more than twice the next most meth-inundated county in Missouri.
The raw numbers tell an incomplete story. Nick Reding, the St. Louis-based author of Methland, a book about meth’s grip on a small Iowa town, says the term “incident” has a variety of meanings.
“The word is out now that lab incidents do not equal a lab producing large amounts of meth,” Reding says. “It can be anything, from a kid who makes a quarter ounce of it — that’s considered a ‘lab,’ according to the police.”
In any case, Boyer would like to get out of the lab-busting business. He and other law-enforcement officials in his area support legislation that would require a prescription to obtain pseudoephedrine, a nasal decongestant used in popular cold and allergy medicines. Cookers use pseudoephedrine to make meth. One process called “shake and bake” requires little more than a handful of pills, a 2-liter soda bottle and some household chemicals.
“The only reasonable thing to do is to make cold medicine available by prescription only,” Reding says.
In 2006, Congress passed a law that moved pseudoephedrine products from the aisles to behind the pharmacy counters. Still, the drug is available without a prescription, and Boyer says that needs to change. Young people, he says, go into drugstores, buy a $5 package of pseudoephedrine and sell it to cooks for $40 or $50.
“We’ve actually made drug dealers out of a college kid who just wants some beer money,” he says.
Last year, Gov. Jay Nixon asked Missouri lawmakers to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. The pharmaceutical industry, however, wants to keep physicians out of the mix. In all but two states — Oregon and Mississippi — drug companies have been successful in keeping pseudoephedrine available without a prescription. Nixon’s proposal died in the state Senate.
Boyer believes that drug companies are putting profits ahead of public safety.
“The pharmaceutical companies are getting rich through the legal sales of pseudoephedrine,” he says. “But they’re doing it with a conscience.”
If you ask him today, Don Reimal, the mayor of Independence, will tell you that the Rolling Stone article was a bunch of bull. “I don’t know how you describe it,” he says. “It’s just stupid.”
Reimal says the magazine was careless when it identified Jackson County and, by extension, Independence as a “methamphetamine capital.” Echoing the chief’s “meth-busting capital” comment, he suggests the city was punished for its vigilance.
“The more aggressive you are,” Reimal says, “the more people pay attention to what you’re doing.” He ticks off the names of other cities that have been dubbed “meth capitals” at one time or another: Philadelphia, Fresno, San Diego, Los Angeles, Fort Worth — it’s a long list. Of course, cities the size of Los Angeles can more easily absorb the slur.
Reimal and others in Independence feel that Rolling Stone needs to make amends for suggesting that the community was choking on meth. “There have been some people that have tried to get the Rolling Stones to retract that statement when they made it,” Reimal says, sounding a little unsure about the distinction between the magazine and the band that recorded “Satisfaction.”
Still, he acknowledges that there was a problem. He credits the citizens for being alert and reporting suspicious activity to the police.
“The drug dealers thought they could move into Independence,” he says. “They found out very shortly that they couldn’t.”
Alas, “meth capital” has proved to be a stubborn label. It has become shorthand, a caricature and even perhaps an explanation for one’s bad business decisions.
The aforementioned 2010 New York Times story with an Independence dateline described the condition of the four houses where Truman once lived. One, of course, is the Victorian mansion on North Delaware Street that the National Park Service operates as a tourist attraction. Times reporter A.G. Sulzberger classified the other three as “decaying,” “unable to sell” and “foreboding.”
A heating-and-cooling repairman named Charles Evans owns the “decaying” Truman home on South Crysler Avenue. The house is cut up into apartment units that Evans, who paid $79,500 for the house in 2004, has had trouble renting.
Evans told Sulzberger that he regretted buying the house. He wasn’t about to blame himself for buying a flimsy piece of property during a real-estate bubble, however.
“Independence is the drug capital of the world,” he said. “It’s just real hard to get decent renters.”