“Narcopolitics is Everywhere:” An Interview with William Garriott
“I felt we needed a language that explained the effects of the War on Drugs and placed them within the broader political culture of the United States, while also enabling comparison between countries, regions or even local contexts.”
By Nicki Lisa Cole
William Garriott is an assistant professor in Justice Studies and Anthropology at James Madison University and holds a PhD in anthropology from Princeton. A cultural anthropologist, his research has been published in “The Canadian Journal of Law and Society” and in “Anthropological Theory.” His latest book, “Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America” (NYU Press 2011), is an in-depth look at the everyday, on-the-ground effects of America’s “war on drugs” for those living in rural West Virginia — a nexus of methamphetamine trade, production, and use. I recently interviewed Garriott to learn more about the approach he took to doing the research presented in the book, the significance of his findings and the practical policy suggestions he has to offer.
NLC: Why did you choose to write a book on methamphetamine, and why now?
WG: I was interested in experiences of addiction in the rural United States — the Appalachian region in particular. At the time, and particularly in the community where I conducted my research, methamphetamine was the most pressing concern. There was also a significant amount of legislative activity taking place, such as the anti-methamphetamine legislation added to the PATRIOT Act in 2006. Thus, I was interested in seeing the interaction between the lived realities of methamphetamine and new anti-meth legislation in a community where meth was a problem, while likewise placing national concerns about methamphetamine in context.
NLC: What are the benefits of an ethnographic approach to understanding this phenomenon?
WG: Ethnography is typically associated with the study of “the local” and “the everyday,” owing, in part, to its origins in the study of small-scale societies. But it is just as effective at working across scales and showing the impact of history on contemporary events. And it is this capacity of ethnography, to link experiences taking place within “the local” to “larger processes of change,” to study “up, down and sideways simultaneously,” to borrow a few phrases from Laura Nader, that I utilized when conducting the research for Policing Methamphetamine in the community I call Baker County.
Working ethnographically across scales was an absolute necessity for my research on methamphetamine. For instance, the key chemical ingredient used in making methamphetamine, which is also the key ingredient in several common over-the-counter cold medicines, is only produced in nine factories in the world — none of which are located in the United States. Similarly, local methamphetamine markets were supplied both by clandestine cooks operating in out-of-the-way locations, and by national and transnational supply chains that brought meth produced in Mexico, California and elsewhere into the area. Thus “the local” context of my ethnography was situated within national and transnational networks of production, distribution and use.
Taking an ethnographic approach allowed me to show the interconnectedness of these processes and experiences — from the methamphetamine “superlabs” in Mexico to the policymaker in Washington, D.C. to the individual addict in West Virginia. Proceeding in this way, I was likewise able to develop a conceptual language — most notably the term, “narcopolitics” — through which to understand what was happening and relate it to other contexts. The conceptual language was developed through reflection on the ethnographic material, not the reverse.
NLC: Explain what you mean by “narcopolitics,” and describe how this concept infuses society and the everyday lives of individuals.
WG: I use the term narcopolitics to refer to a mode of political practice that works to rationalize governance in terms of the problems associated with illicit drugs, a.k.a. “narcotics.” It is an adaptation of Michel Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics” — an attempt to theorize the same dynamics of governance he examines from the perspective of “life,” but from the perspective of narcotics.
I introduced this term because I felt I did not have the conceptual language I needed to describe what I was witnessing in Baker County. This was rooted in a more fundamental problem: we (both scholars and citizens) lack a robust conceptual language to think and speak critically about the political and cultural effects of America’s ongoing encounter with illicit drugs. The term “War on Drugs” is often used, but the meaning of this term is already over-determined by its origins in and association with official political discourse. I felt we needed a language that explained the effects of the War on Drugs and placed them within the broader political culture of the United States, while also enabling comparison between countries, regions or even local contexts. Introducing the term narcopolitics was an attempt to do that.
Narcopolitics is everywhere, though it manifests itself differently in different locations. It shapes the administration of public schools, family dynamics and the work of the state (both distributive and retributive), just to name a few. In poorer neighborhoods narcopolitics may take the form of over-policing and hyper-surveillance; in wealthier neighborhoods it may manifest itself as the drug test that is used in the negotiation of tensions between parents and children; in public schools it means that drug searches by police are now taken-for-granted components of the educational experience, just as anti-drug programs such as D.A.R.E. have been fully incorporated into the curriculum; prenatal care today routinely involves drug testing; and the receipt of work-related benefits, such as workers compensation after injury, are usually contingent on the ability of the worker to demonstrate that he or she is drug free, and that their injury was not the result of drug use. Failure to prove this typically results in loss of those benefits and termination from the job. The criminal justice system is probably where the impact of narcopolitics has been the most pronounced. Indeed, it is hard to even imagine criminal justice in the United States today apart from the focus on illegal drugs. So across these institutions, which are some of the primary sites where the work of governance takes place, drugs have come to play an important, though often under appreciated, role.
NLC: Meth figures prominently in recent popular culture. Last year’s film Winter’s Bone was a favorite of critics; a plot-line involving a meth lab was featured on the new Law & Order: Los Angeles; and the term “meth face” has arisen based on images of people arrested for using meth. Did the image of methamphetamine use, and of the meth addict in popular culture, influence your interest in this topic? If so, how? Do you think the popular portrayal is accurate? And, how might this relate to narcopolitics?
WG: Methamphetamine was just starting to work its way into popular culture while I was conducting my research (2006-07). The most prominent force at the time were the anti-meth campaigns undertaken by groups like the Montana Meth Project. I was struck by these campaigns because they focused so much on the physical effects of meth — the toll it takes on the body. The Multnomah County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office “Faces of Meth” program, the Montana Meth Project’s P.S.A.s and others have taken great strides to disseminate gruesome images of meth-ravaged bodies as their way to deter potential users. And with the Internet, digital copies of these images can be picked up and reproduced very easily. I saw “before and after” mug shots taken in Oregon, reproduced on posters by a company in Colorado, and used by the Sheriff’s office in my field site in West Virginia as part of their own anti-meth campaign. So obviously this depiction of meth use has resonated deeply with the public, particularly amongst those looking to curb meth use.
The question of whether or not these representations are “accurate” is tough to answer in the abstract. Most of the meth users I knew displayed or reported symptoms associated with meth use such as weight loss, tooth loss and so on. Staying up for days at a time was also common, as were hallucinations, and obsessive, repetitive activity (like counting change), and irritability. At the same time, not everyone displayed these symptoms, even those who had been using regularly for years.
One of the more interesting aspects of meth use I discovered was its relationship with labor in the area. Baker County is in the midst of the regional poultry industry. Virtually everyone is connected in one way or another to this industry, be it as a “grower” of poultry, a truck driver or a worker in one of the processing plants. And in almost every aspect of this industry, one could find meth being used. Many truckers used it to stay awake during long drives or to pick up extra shifts, while those working on the “live hang” line — where live chickens were placed on a conveyer belt-like apparatus to move through the machine that slaughtered them — used it to be more productive and make their work more enjoyable. Indeed, the tendency of meth to make people more energetic, capable of working faster for longer hours, and with a chemically driven compulsion to do repetitive tasks, made it ideally suited for use in the agribusiness economy that dominates Baker County and much of rural America.
Many of those I worked with started using meth as part of their work in the poultry industry. On the surface, the managers at the poultry processing plants were working hard to eliminate its use. Drug testing was part of the application process, for instance (another example of narcopolitics at work), as were regular, random drug screens which often resulted in firings when workers tested positive, which they seemed to do with some regularity. However, meth users I knew who worked in the local poultry plants scoffed at these efforts, and said that managers were more likely to turn a blind eye to meth use because it helped productivity. One former user and dealer I spoke with said that a supervisor at the plant caught him using meth at work, but instead of disciplining him, the supervisor simply demanded to be given some meth for himself.
NLC: How is this case similar to or different from approaches to policing other drugs? For instance, I often thought about the policing of crack cocaine in inner cities and the attention paid to Oxycontin in the last decade while reading this book, and wondered about the overlap and divergences.
WG: Perhaps the most unique feature of methamphetamine is that it may be produced locally. The chemical ingredients are all legal and widely available. “Recipes” for “cooking” meth are easily obtained via the Internet. This has shaped the production, circulation, regulation and policing of methamphetamine in very specific ways. Targeting local production, for instance, has involved mobilization of broad swaths of the population — essentially anyone involved in the production or sale of any ingredient which can be used to make methamphetamine. Pharmacists, for instance, must now maintain a state registry which records and monitors the sale of products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (most often cold medications such as Sudafed). I spoke with cashiers at a variety of businesses who likewise were required to monitor the sale of certain items used to make meth. Some were even instructed to write down the license plate numbers of any customer they encountered that they suspected of making meth. So in this regard, the policing of methamphetamine has involved some unique innovations.
At the same time, there is much that is very familiar in the response to methamphetamine. As with previous illicit drug “epidemics,” the response has been largely punitive. The criminal justice system has, by and large, been given the primary responsibility of addressing the problem. Those that are arrested tend to be low-level users and dealers, mostly poor and marginal. Treatment options for users are limited, particularly if one does not have the means to pay for private, outpatient treatment (the majority of those arrested). Treatment options are even more difficult to access in rural communities. And despite all of the concern for locally manufactured meth, the bulk of methamphetamine available in the United States comes from elsewhere, particularly Mexico. So, there are the same dynamics of transnational circulation and enforcement that one sees with more familiar drugs such as cocaine and heroin — and in many cases it is the same cartels using the same transportation networks employed to bring these and other illicit commodities into the country.
NLC: You found that people in Baker County felt that meth addicts were often “the people you would never expect.” Can you unpack this a bit for us? In particular, what anxieties undergird this sentiment? And, what does this perception reveal about contemporary American culture?
WG: This phrase, “the people you’d never expect,” was one I encountered frequently among adults when I asked about the local methamphetamine problem. The idea was that, what made meth different (and scary), was that it wasn’t those individuals who seemed naturally inclined to deviance that were the most likely users of meth, but, rather, the “people you’d never expect” — the “popular kids,” the athletes, the “good kids” from the “good families.” A psychologist who worked for both the local hospital and high school told me that if I wanted to see who the meth users were, I should go to a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the high school — a group composed entirely of the “good kids” from the “good families.”
The irony, of course, is that it was typically not these individuals who were the primary targets of police intervention beyond the random drug searches that took place at the school. Indeed, I asked the guidance counselor at the high school about the prospects of instituting a random drug testing program at the school and he stated it was an impossibility due to the high potential that the “wrong people” would be tested. The leader of a local citizens group said explicitly that, even though the typical user was imagined to be “the people you’d never suspect,” it was still only “the rednecks who go to jail,” by which she meant the poorer members of the community. This is part of a broader pattern with a deep history in the United States where anxieties over the vulnerability of middle class youth fuel the desire for a punitive response which focuses disproportionately on the poor and marginal.
NLC: Policing, surveilling and punishment are increasingly privatized in our society. Did you find this to affect attention to meth and the treatment of meth addicts?
WG: There was very little in the way of privatized policing at work in the response to methamphetamine in Baker County. However, the forces that have driven the move to privatization elsewhere were certainly present. These were forces such as overcrowding in jails and prisons; local and state governments incapable of financing policies which privilege policing and incarceration; and the unwillingness of local, state or federal government to invest substantially in mental health and social services — particularly in rural areas — so as to take some of the pressure off of the criminal justice system.
This left very few options for methamphetamine users seeking treatment. Those with the means traveled to private clinics, some of which were 100 miles away. Others made use of the local state-run mental health facility — though it functioned in many ways as a component of, rather than an alternative to, the criminal justice system. Those whose drug use led to incarceration had very few treatment options at the regional jail. There was a treatment program in the jail, but it only served eight inmates at a time (out of a population of over 200), and only men, leaving women with no formal treatment options. Entrance into the program was competitive; and, given that the vast majority of those incarcerated had some significant history of drug use and abuse, according to administrators, competition was high.
Once admitted, the person was still subject to the terms of the their sentence or the progress of their case: if it was decided halfway through the program that the person was to be transferred to a state penitentiary, that was the end of their treatment, even if the program was proving successful. And, of course, there was the constant possibility that the state would choose to eliminate the treatment program and other mental health services as a cost-saving measure. Given all of this, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) were very important components of the local treatment landscape. The service was free, easily accessible (though only recently so) and run by addicts rather than medical professionals, state officials, or other authority figures. But even these meetings were not totally separate from the criminal justice system, as judges often required those convicted of drug crimes to attend a certain number of AA or NA meetings as a component of their probation.
NLC: Simultaneously, you point out that narcopolitics involves the folding of citizens into police work. Tell us about the community implications of this phenomenon.
WG: In the case of methamphetamine, this goes back to the fact that it can be produced locally, using relatively common household chemicals. Part of the response to methamphetamine at the state and national level has been to impose new regulations on these chemicals, primarily at point of sale. There have also been significant efforts made to raise awareness in communities about the chemicals used in methamphetamine manufacture as well as possible meth lab indicators. This has required everyone from pharmacists to cashiers to citizens involved in highway clean up programs to participate in the policing of methamphetamine, either through newly imposed work requirements or simply through encouragement to be more vigilant in scanning the social and physical landscape for signs of meth production or use.
A corollary aspect is the representation of methamphetamine as a uniquely “white” and “rural” drug. This is an inversion of the standard representation of drug problems in the United States as problems particular to urban, nonwhite populations. The residents of Baker County, which is overwhelmingly white, struggled with this because it meant they had to look internally to uncover the methamphetamine users and producers in their midst. Here again we see the importance of the physical signs of methamphetamine use, such as tooth loss, weight loss, scabbed skin and so on. When drug use and criminality can no longer be associated exclusively with nonwhite, urban populations, a new means of identifying the addicted criminal starts to emerge.
NLC: Have you heard from anyone in the community who has read the book? What reactions are you getting to it?
WG: I am in regular contact with “Christie” whose story is the focus of the final chapter of the book. She said reading her story was “like a slap in the face, but in a good way,” meaning that it reminded her of everything she had gone through and brought all of those memories — most of which are not particularly pleasant — rushing back. Christie occupies a difficult existential position. She feels that while her arrest, prosecution and incarceration were completely unjust, they were responsible for literally saving her life. Christie is thus both thankful and resentful at the same time, and reading the book forced her to encounter and work through that tension again.
Christie has gone back to school and recently earned a degree — ironically in her eyes — in criminal justice. She has enjoyed telling her colleagues that she was both the subject of and a consultant on a recently published book. Seeing the book in print inspired her to contact the judge that sentenced her. The two of them had a long conversation in his chambers, which was an incredible experience for her — one with deep symbolic weight. It sounds as though it was a good experience for the judge, too, as Christie is one of the few “success stories” to which he can point. But at the deepest level, Christie felt that I got her story and that of the community “right,” which I was very pleased to hear. Indeed, it was through working with Christie that I realized I needed to tell the story, not just of addicts, but of institutions and the community more generally to understand methamphetamine because all were being affected, albeit in different ways.
NLC: If the “War on Drugs” is a failure in its goals and for those it targets, what practical policy recommendations would you make based on your research?
WG: As an anthropologist, I see the use of mind-altering substances as endemic to the human experience. The historical and ethnographic record suggests that use of such substances, which range from tobacco and sugar to opium and heroin, has been taking place for a long time. From this perspective, there is no reason to believe that there will ever be a completely “drug free” society. This does not mean that drug control is an inherently fruitless endeavor; it does mean that aspiring to complete elimination of drugs and drug use is probably unrealistic. Policy should be shaped accordingly.
One of the things I was at pains to demonstrate in the book was how engrained the War on Drugs — or, as I prefer, narcopolitics — has become in the political culture of the United States. This is one of the reasons why reform of any kind is so difficult. As I mentioned above, criminal justice in the U.S. is virtually unimaginable apart from the focus on illicit drugs. Thus to imagine a less punitive approach to governing drugs would require a fundamental shift in those institutions that have been tasked with putting this approach into play.
Let me give you an example. The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently released a report, which formally declares that the War on Drugs has failed. They recommend a shift away from punitive, zero-tolerance policies focused on reducing supply towards approaches focused on reducing harm and demand. One of the commission’s recommendations that I see as particularly significant is that governments shift their focus away from those on the low end of illegal drug markets: farmers, petty sellers, couriers and so on. The report rightly recognizes that these individuals are often themselves victims of violence, and are involved in the drug trade because they have few alternatives to earn a living, support their families and so on.
These individuals have often been the target of drug enforcement operations, in part because they are the most vulnerable to arrest, but also because their arrest is part of a widely employed enforcement strategy in which police threaten these individuals with long prison sentences in order to get them to assist with police investigations as confidential informants. If they succeed in “flipping” this person, police then use them to pursue the next person in the distribution network. If they can arrest this next person, then they try to get them to flip, and they begin the process all over again. To turn attention away from these individuals, as the report recommends, would thus mean abandoning a common practice used by police in drug enforcement. It would require police to re-imagine the structure of the drug trade and the most appropriate means of policing it. This could be a good thing in the long run, though in the short run I imagine it would be quite difficult and be met with significant resistance.
That said, now might actually be a good time to pursue such systemic change. One of the things I was struck by during my research was the rather profound lack of enthusiasm for the contemporary approach to drug enforcement among members of the criminal justice system. There was just an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air whenever I spent time at the courthouse. Criminal justice workers seemed to take little satisfaction in their work and saw their efforts as, at best, a containment measure, but nothing that would ever promote any real change in the problem. This suggests, to me, that there may be some openness to alternatives at this point that may not have been there during previous decades. The sheer cost of policies that emphasize incarceration is also starting to take its toll on local governments, so I think there is openness to change on that front as well.
But all of this may be fruitless if the illicit drug trade can’t be curbed. I mentioned above that humans have a long history of using mind-altering substances. What is unique today is that these substances have become commodities. Assuming the commodity form allows them to be produced, circulated and used within a market context, on a remarkable scale. Many of the contemporary problems associated with illegal drugs stem from their circulation as much as their actual use. This is, in part, why I am not an unqualified supporter of legalization. Though the harms of the prohibition approach are well-documented, so, too, are the harms of legal markets in substances such as tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and over-the-counter and prescription medications. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that legal substances such as these are much more harmful to personal well being and public health than their illegal counterparts. That said, the pursuit of prohibition does carry the constant potential of exacerbating the very social harms it is intended to address.
One of the most devastating consequences of U.S. drug policy is that it sustains illegal markets, and thus the organizations — industries, really — that supply and control these markets. What is taking place currently in Mexico is one of the more acute and tragic manifestations of this predicament. There you have terrible levels of violence, towns overrun and then run by drug cartels, and a Mexican state which does not have the resources to compete. Thus one of the challenges I see is to devise forms of drug control which regulate use while reducing the impact of illicit markets. The punitive approach has not succeeded in eliminating illicit drug markets. A new approach needs to be developed that addresses the profit motive. If the profit motive could be mitigated somewhat, I think the drug trade would quickly become less attractive as an occupation, and the harms associated with it would begin to evaporate.
Nicki Lisa Cole is a writer and public intellectual who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She earned a Master of Arts from UCSB in 2006, and a Bachelor of Arts from Pomona College in 2002. Nicki keeps an eye on issues of both global and local production and consumption, and their connections to social problems. She writes about what we can do to promote justice and equality, and believes fiercely in the motto of New Hampshire, her home state: Live free or die. To learn more about her interests and writing, visit www.nickilisacole.com. Contact Nicki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nickilisacole.
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