The Scourge: Life. Death. Meth. What it’s like to love the drug that’s killing small-town Indiana.

Scourge-SpreadTo outsiders, Petersburg, Indiana is little more than a straight three-mile stretch of State Highway 57, dubbed, simply, Main Street. Three of the town’s four traffic lights—four of five, if you count the blinking yellow at the intersection of 12th Street—are spaced along this artery to regulate traffic to and from the library, the courthouse, City Hall and the Sheriff’s Department, both of the town’s bars, its McDonald’s and Dairy Queen, both of its pharmacies, its liquor store, the largest of its three grocery stores, and its Dollar General. But one adventuresome turn from Main Street and its facadeswill lead you to a different Petersburg: a town of modest two-stories, ranches whose paint is chipped and fading, farmhouses and outlying trailer parks where its 2,570 people live; of suffocating out-county coal mines, thick corn and soybean fields, and a shroud of gray-and-purple smoke that spews from the towering stacks of the power plant where most of the residents work. Most of them are poor; about 10 percent live in poverty. Ninety-two percent don’t have a college degree, and a third didn’t graduate from high school. Their children keep Pike County at or near the top of the state’s annual list of dropout rates.

At night, the teens and twentysomethings of Petersburg spill forth onto Main Street from the back blocks and gravel roads. They gather in cliques on the street corners and in front of the bars and convenience stores, smoking cigarettes and looking to get laid. The minors wait for a passing adult to buy them booze or perhaps hook them up with something stronger. Those with cars and trucks pick up their friends and roll the streets in search of a fix, an escape, something to do. “Ain’t shit to do in this town besides drink, fight, smoke pot, or shoot dope,” says Mike Woodland, a devout student of all four schools of passing time, and at 30, an almost lifelong citizen of Petersburg and this scene. He knows the dope, the meth, is especially popular here, and not just among the youth on these small-town streets.


Methamphetamine came to town 20 years ago, when locals first learned that they could take a pitcher of anhydrous ammonia—liquefied nitrogen fertilizer—from a nearby farm, some lithium batteries, ether, and a couple boxes of sinus pills and make electric, chemical bliss. The drug accelerates the addiction process, taking hold of its users and leaving them exhausted, empty, and emaciated, desperate for another fix. Today this once-fringe drug has the entire county in a lockjaw grip. Since 1999, officials in Pike County—Indiana’s 85th most populous—have seized 95 meth iambs, 13th most in a state that is second in the nation. And Sheriff Todd Meadors says those are only the labs his department has stumbled upon. The county can’t afford the training or equipment for a meth-specific task force. Even so, nine of 10 Pike County arrests are meth-related.

The police reports posted in Petersburg’s weekly paper, the Press-Dispatch, are bulging with meth busts. The houses of 60-year-old men are being raided as meth labs. Third- and fourth-generation babies are born every day with the dope in their bodies, in their blood. Meth affects everyone, knows no boundary of class or gender. It’s now so prevalent that it’s impinging upon even those who’ve never used it: the elderly woman who goes to CVS to fill a prescription and has to wait in line behind people who must show ID to buy Sudafed; the mother who calls 911 because her toddler stepped on a discarded syringe in the park; the mushroom-hunters who fear that they’ll stumble across a meth lab and its tweaked, paranoid, gun-toting owner; the children left fatherless while Daddy goes to prison for methamphetamine. Daily, social workers remove children from clandestine labs—pulling them starving from where they sit on scorched carpet beside burnt spoons and needles, immune to the noxious stench of anhydrous that causes visitors to retch upon first contact, their parents either too spaced out or too focused on chasing the high to care. In this town, there’s no escape.


July 12. Woodland is a prisoner: Indiana Department of Correction number 156277, doing three years for conspiracy to manufacture and deal methamphetamine, a class B felony. He’s been in and out of this jail eight times in the last 10 years, doing weeks and months at a time for random drug charges. This is his third felony. A fourth will categorize him as a habitual offender, a tag that carries a mandatory sentence of at least 20 years.

Less than two weeks into his latest sentence, he sits in the Pike County Jail on Main Street in Petersburg, enjoying the air-conditioning he didn’t have in his mother’s trailer less than a mile down the road, reading paperback Westerns to fill the empty hours. A lean, muscular man, he does push-ups and sit-ups to stay in shape and burn his pent-up energy and frustration. He’s jittery, sometimes breaking into small bursts of nervous laughter when he talks. He constantly crosses and uncrosses his arms. He can’t seem to sit still. His sharp brown eyes are always wide and frantic, darting this way and that, as if he’s constantly surveying his surroundings. When he gets worked up, his unpredictability unnerves even his family.

Woodland is waiting to be sent up to a state penitentiary, which may not happen for some time. The DOC is currently housing almost 2,000 inmates in Indiana county jails due to overcrowding, which in turn is due largely to the increase in meth arrests. Indiana taxpayers spend an extra $35 per day per DOC inmate bloused in county jails. Pike County Jail pulls in between $300,000 and $400,000 a year housing DOC inmates. A facility that usually bolds about 60 now keeps 83 behind its bars. Inmates sleep on the floor.

Woodland says he won’t mind being sent to the pen, where at least he’ll have contact visits with his family. He could kiss his wife. He could hold his daughters—18-month-old Kaitlyn and 20-month-old Madison—instead of watching them cry and press kisses against the glass of the jail’s visitation room. He misses them, longs to bold them.

Kaitlyn and Madison are the reasons he’s in here. If not for them, he would have fled, lived as a fugitive in the woods or in some rural county in Illinois. He wants to get this over with. “I got to get out and get clean so I can be a father to my girls,” he says. “The longer I drag it out, the older they’re going to be when I get out.” But as much as he loves his daughters, he also loves the drug. In jail, just as outside, he thinks about it every day: the prick of the needle in his muscular arm, the slow drive of the fluid into his throbbing vein as he presses the plunger. The rush as it courses to his heart. Eyes wide, pulse racing as his beard pumps the bliss through him, biting every inch of his body, each extremity tingling beneath a tin glaze of sweat, a thousand simultaneous bursts of adrenaline, euphoria, as if his very soul were about to tear free. It’s like walking barefoot on a bed of cotton. Some women experience immediate orgasm with a single hit. “It makes me a wild, slobbering animal,” Woodland says. “It makes me feel fucking invincible.”

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly