What Meth Means
By Richard Mills

I remember being among a crowd of teenagers assembled on the CalArts campus near L.A. for a summer session in the late 1990s. A speaker mentioned San Francisco, and somebody whooped from the crowd: “Yeah, NOR-CAL!” Being from a rural, inland part of Northern California, I was delighted to be lumped in with that beautiful city. But I also understood that “Northern California” was a name, not a unified place. Indeed, the two main swaths of culture and geography bound together in that title–coastal California and the state’s interior–remain very distinct, and often at odds.

Philip L. Fradkin, in his book The Seven States of California, carves up our geography with more concern for east-west distinctions than latitudinal ones. “The Fractured Province,” for example, stretches from Point Arena to just north of Santa Barbara, while the separate “Great Valley” extends from Redding to Bakersfield. He’s not alone in his thinking. In 2009, the Citizens for Saving California Farming Industries was launched in Visalia. Irate over the passing of Proposition 2, which regulated the confinement of farm animals, the organization sought to split the state in two. The “farm-uneducated city dwellers” of the coastal counties had passed the law, and it was time to let them “have their way”; the two states would consist of a geographically small, coastal state and a massive agricultural one. “If they can’t appreciate agriculture,” read a campaign poster, “they should live without it.”

Even though much of the wealth, political power, and higher education remain concentrated near the sea, the growth of our big coastal cities has slowed. The populations of inland areas like the Central Valley, on the other hand, have grown by more than 20 percent in the past ten years, attracting people with affordable housing prices and, earlier in the last decade, jobs. There’s an increasing disparity between where people live and where power and wealth lie, and many Californians find this arrangement untenable.

As someone who was born and raised inland, yet has spent most of his adult life in the Bay Area, I sometimes wonder if I’m drawn to the construct of “Northern California” because it manages to encompass–if somewhat artificially–the two halves of my life, the two poles of my experience that are otherwise difficult to reconcile.

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During the long, wild winter that dominated the early months of 2011, my wife and I went on a trip to Lake Tahoe with a group of people–all of us living in the Bay Area. On the first night, I found myself having a pleasant conversation with a guy I hadn’t met before. He asked me where I was from; I said that I was from rural Shasta County and explained, along with a few other details, that a lot of people there did meth.1 The conversation died down, and I listened in on my wife talking to his girlfriend. My wife said that she was from Modesto and explained, along with a few other details, that a lot of people there did meth.

For some reason, I found this deeply embarrassing. I imagined the couple conferring in their cabin bedroom, squinting with distaste: “Why did they both bring up meth?” And I began to ask myself the same question. Why did she and I, from very distant points in inland California, both refer to meth as among the defining characteristics of the places we came from? Shasta County and Modesto, after all, aren’t all that similar, and have a lot more going on than meth, including a lot that is absolutely beautiful. Why then did meth provide such useful shorthand for explaining our inland backgrounds to our coastal contemporaries? These questions began to feel all the more important once I realized that the presence of meth was a tidbit I dropped pretty frequently when questioned about my hometown.

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My first thought was that the meth problem provides a pretty reliable rejoinder to the most common cliché outsiders float about inland towns and cities in California–”there’s nothing there.” Well, meth is definitely something.

“There’s nothing there.” Because that claim usually comes from a cosmopolitan vantage, we overlook how chauvinistic–and classist–it is. But if you live in a place and among people whose chief characteristic in the minds of your coastal neighbors is nothingness, it can lead to a bit of a complex. It’s a complex that might compel you to point to whatever evidence you can find–even the presence of a horrible drug–to show that you live in a real place with real lives led in it.

When I was a kid, for example, in the early ’90s, a teacher from Southern California (Long Beach, I think) visited our school–kindergarten through eighth grade, with a total enrollment of under one hundred–as part of some teacher-exchange program. One day, he described to our class the metal detectors and shootings, the intricacies of gang culture and ethnic rivalry at his school. He chuckled weakly out the window, soaking in the cow pastures outside and the kids before him, marveling at the sheer distance between these two poles of California. I was rapt, even hushing some chattering classmates.

In the following weeks I would picture full-grown men, spectral with billowing clothes and ferocious language, pacing through prison-like cafeterias, zeroing in on me with my long hair and J.C. Penney school clothes. In those weeks I developed an unshakable sadness, and I soon began to wonder why. Ultimately, I believe I was saddened by the distance between my life and these places; it was as though I was made unreal by this distance.

That is, I had begun to view living in cities not as a particular type of existence, but as foundational to existence itself. I was at the age when we begin to understand the scope of the world and the smallness of a single human life, the smallness of our own lives, but it seemed to me that a city person–viewing and viewable by millions–was multiplied by those millions. He was woven into the thick rope of humanity that made culture and history. I, however, was hovering outside those concourses of life.

Moreover, I watched television avidly as a kid, and observed closely the differences between my world and what appeared on the screen. I wasn’t struck by the differences between my life and the events depicted in the shows–of course my daily activities didn’t resemble those of professional stunt men, talking puppets, or the jauntily upper-middle-class families that populated the sitcoms. More so, I was struck by the basic arrangement of physical and social life on TV, the background assumptions upon which all the drama was staged. Neighbors, sidewalks, beaches. Dropping in. Staying for dinner. Chance encounters. Elevators and stoops. The social and architectural geographies of these programs made humans cluster and squeezed drama out of them; they were the preconditions for experience.

The stage upon which my own life played out, however, was much different. Our homes were freestanding, two stories or less, sometimes mobile, typically with a lot of uninviting terrain between them. Neighbors didn’t drop by. An unexpected car coming down the driveway, gravel snapping beneath its tires, was a moment of high tension. Our landscape didn’t seem to prompt those encounters that, on TV, preceded real experience.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Berkeley for college that I figured out how to articulate the inland California of my upbringing as a place with features and textures. I let the rodeos, evangelicals, and open plains take on a whiff of the exotic as I described where I was from to friends from San Francisco or Mission Viejo. And meth–a dark, dirty drug epidemic that had ravaged hundreds of communities throughout the country–was part of the story.

So, perhaps we inland expats reflexively include meth on the short list of things you should know about our hometowns because it lends a crusty authenticity, a sense of mean yet vivid actuality to places that for many on the coast hold little more than the tall signs for big-box stores and fast-food chains they see from I-5 or Highway 99, all signifying “nothing.”

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Of course, there’s a much more obvious reason we might mention the drug in reference to inland California–it’s really, really popular there.

Meth use in California is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the country, and we’re an enormous state. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately one out of every six meth users in the U.S. was a Californian as of 2004. Also in 2004, the department reported that California admitted sixty thousand patients to state facilities for methamphetamine or amphetamine abuse–the next highest was Washington state, with under ten thousand.

Moreover, the epidemic began as a Central Valley phenomenon. Meth hit the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys early and hard, then spread outward in the following years. The drug was a major problem in the Central Valley by the early 1990s, more than a decade before a wave of national interest in the drug and a consequent round of governmental fretting. In 2000, almost five years before the meth epidemic started making the covers of national magazines, the Fresno Bee published a major series on meth, calling its production and distribution “perhaps one of the largest businesses in the Central Valley,” one that had infiltrated towns from Redding to Bakersfield. And a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services map recording the primary drug of abuse upon admission into California facilities in 2000 shows meth as ranking highest primarily in a cluster of Central Valley counties, including Tehama, Sutter, Sacramento, Stanislaus, and Merced. By 2007, what started inland had bled west, and all but a small handful of counties, mostly in the Bay Area and the Sierras, admitted more meth users into their facilities than users of any other drug.

Even if most methamphetamine use now takes place in urban or coastal areas, the California communities most vulnerable to being crippled by the drug are still rural, and often inland. As Nick Reding puts it in Methland, his excellent 2009 book on the meth epidemic in small-town America and the global forces that created it, “San Francisco undoubtedly has many more meth addicts than Merced,” but such large cities can “absorb the associated costs” of a meth problem more easily than a smaller town. That is, in a place the size of Merced, there are likely far more meth addicts per capita than San Francisco, so the town’s law enforcement and social services may be too small and too underfunded to manage the problem.

In addition to being a drug of choice for its residents, meth has also been an enormous part of the inland California economy. California biker gangs ran the trade until the early ’90s, when Mexican organized crime took over and started setting up superlabs in the Central Valley. These crime networks took advantage, according to the 2000 Bee report, of some of the region’s most defining features–the existing Latino population made it so meth workers up from Mexico didn’t stand out; the vast swaths of undeveloped land provided a lot of remote, hidden locales for labs; and finally, because most of rural California is rarely more than a few hours away from a major metropolitan area, the product could get to where it needed to go easily.

At its height of production, the Central Valley was cooking 80 percent of all the meth made in the United States. For us, it’s almost like an Iowan muttering something about corn upon meeting a New Yorker. Meth is one of the marks we’ve made on the world.

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The connection between meth and inland California seems to go even deeper than the mere fact of its presence; surveying my memories related to meth–both in the region and out–the drug represents characteristics of the inland experience that are difficult to articulate.

I remember around ’94 or ’95–a period that, incidentally, coincided with a major spike in meth purity and use in the West2–watching friends be gradually absorbed by the circle of wiry mountain kids that formed the dark periphery of our punk rock scene. They’d later emerge addicted to the drug, furtive and desiccated.

I remember a childhood friend who’d taken a hard turn toward teenage alcoholism, how he’d cradle his personal case of Steel Reserve as he strode around parties and shows, and how he had to start snorting crank–the moniker most common in our sub-region–to get through morning shifts at Walgreens.

I remember the tales from young jobless addicts, of sorting and cleaning and organizing for hours. After moving to San Francisco, I’d listen to my upstairs neighbors on Haight Street moving their furniture all night long, and the chemical waft that came from the door when I went up to complain was unmistakable.

I remember a friend from the Central Valley describing a nightlong session that had taken place in a trailer somewhere. “It feels like whatever you are doing is just interesting enough, including nothing. You could do the same thing for hours; nothing is particularly exciting, but it’s all equally appealing.”

On a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Redding in the mid-2000s, I remember a guy about my age with a mottled face, wearing typical garb for the meth demographic–wifebeater, long denim shorts–boarding at a stopover in Sacramento. He buddied up with another guy in the back and started braying about his White Power affiliation and about how the Latinos at the front of the bus were conspiring against them. He sickened and scared me, and later told a story that almost made me feel bad for him. Visiting relatives in Arkansas, he stopped to help an elderly stranger whose car had broken down on the side of the road. The stranger turned out to be Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. As the man on the bus recalled millions being promised in appreciation, the story became transparently untrue, and it died in a gust of stammers.

I remember an episode of Intervention–a television show that documents the lives of drug addicts before they are whisked away to an intervention and treatment–that my wife and I watched in a hotel somewhere a couple years ago. The meth addict in this episode feels superhuman under its influence, and spends much of his time pursuing a delusion. He thinks that by searching the nearby forests and digging up enough burls–growths on trees that can be polished and carved into furniture–he will strike it rich. He doesn’t.

I remember another Greyhound bus trip, this one from Manhattan to Indianapolis, also in the company of another apparently meth-addled white man. I rankled him somewhere in Ohio by cracking open peanuts too loudly, setting off a seven-hour monologue–during which he was occasionally shirtless and rarely seated–that began with a simple declaration: “I began as a single atom of iron!” He was of mythic stature, he told the busload, and the grand history of his origins was encoded in the shape of certain letters of the alphabet.

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In popular discourse, our discussions of drug use are literalistic. Use increases when availability increases. Or people have illnesses and predispositions that lead to proclivities. When we try to understand the psychology of drug use in order to identify individual motives, we rarely get much further than the simple equation that traumas require palliatives, and drugs palliate trauma, if temporarily and destructively.

Much of what’s been published and broadcast about the meth problem has focused on the grisly consequences of using the drug, or the criminal and corporate machinations that got the drug to people in the first place. Yet little has been said about what, exactly, draws people to the drug. Granted, the neuroscience shows that once you use it enough, meth destroys your brain’s capacity to sense pleasure from sex, from food, from achievement, from anything except meth itself, making the road toward hardcore addiction an extraordinarily fast one. But what about that moment in between? What first desire sets it all into motion?

The people who systematically research these questions often view drug users as if they were any other rational actor in the marketplace. In this model, people gravitate toward meth because the high is longer and the cost is lower than comparable drugs. Undoubtedly this is part of the appeal. But to describe the emotional logic that draws people to it, despite its highly publicized and hideous effects, is more difficult.

Perhaps a drug sometimes has a more nuanced appeal; perhaps a particular drug’s characteristic effects fulfill a particular user’s needs. An image begins to emerge from my memories of meth users, an image of people trying to convince themselves of something: I am useful and important. I am going to be rewarded for how valuable I am. I am not invisible. I have the secret that separates me from those sad masses.

From a certain vantage then, meth is a symbol for this particular stage in the life of American capitalism. Our society, among the richest in the history of the world, seems to be waning. Between 1980 and today–the period that, incidentally, saw the beginnings of large-scale meth production and the blooming of a national meth epidemic–we’ve seen a dramatic spike in income disparity while the middle class has steadily shrunk. Many of us can only look back on generations of unprecedented prosperity, where hard work was inevitably rewarded, where the average American seemed destined to be exceptional, or at least financially secure and capable of finding good, dignified work. We look at our own prospects and wonder what we did wrong. And in the Central Valley–mere hours away from the Silicon Valley, that paragon of the endless-growth mirage–I imagine that people have wondered with some intensity what they did wrong, even before it became among the regions in the country hardest hit by the recent economic downturn. With all this in mind, my memories of meth cohere into a single image of someone pantomiming the ritual of success, trying to summon the opportunities that once were.

In Methland, Reding makes the connection between the drug and the trajectory of our economy explicit. In Oelwein, Iowa, the town his book focuses on, the path toward being a meth addict and small-time meth cook parallels the movement toward corporate consolidation in the ’80s and ’90s. As a few huge companies overtook family farms and small-time meatpacking plants, wages for workers dropped drastically and often overnight. In order to survive, people had to work day and night, and meth was the perfect drug to get them through it. Once that unsustainable strategy went off the rails, some turned to small-time meth production, which paid much better than the terrible wages that, say, Tyson Foods now offered. It’s easy to imagine Californians facing similar pressures, as the farming industry faced rising costs and lower crop prices, as careers in logging disappeared, as employment in construction and related industries periodically ebbed throughout the decades and, more recently, all but vanished.

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Meth is not just emblematic of poor people. To put it more bluntly and specifically, it’s most often a drug of poor white people. According to Methland, part of what made the epidemic so perplexing to the larger public and lawmakers in its early stages was that the people making it and using it were predominantly poor or working-class rural whites. “In that way,” writes Reding, “the meth epidemic appeared to have neither analog nor precedent in any time since the [American] Revolution.” Reding cites the speakeasies of New York and Chicago, LSD in San Francisco, cocaine in South Beach and Wall Street; there’s also the crack-cocaine epidemic that afflicted urban African American communities throughout the United States. In the American imagination, as these examples show, drug use is either about white urban decadence or black urban poverty. Nonetheless, meth use has been prevalent in low-income communities, and while its use has spread rapidly to other demographics since the ’90s, the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that 71 percent of people admitted to substance abuse treatment for meth nationwide were still white in 2004.

Also, more personally, meth’s aura overlaps with that of the poor white families I grew up with. My own corner of inland California was checkered with poor, middle-class, and even wealthy households–Merle Haggard, for example, lived down the road. And it is the poor families that meth reminds me of. It’s as though the lives they were living were uniquely prepared for the entrance of meth. That is, the tenor of the worst of white poverty I’ve seen–a kind of unhinged meanness and desperation–is also the tenor of meth, and it’s frightening.

Inland California is certainly a very diverse place, and increasingly more so. It is home to people at all socioeconomic levels; it is home to Native Americans and expanding Latino, African American, and Asian populations. But I think anyone who travels frequently between the Bay Area and the Valley will note the presence of low-income whites as one of the key distinguishing factors between the coastal and inland regions. Last year, The Economist described the Central Valley as “the Appalachia of the West,” and, referring to the poor whites from the Great Plains who came to California during the Depression, noted that “economically, socially, and educationally, their descendants have barely moved up.”

White poverty is a strangely invisible phenomenon. This, I think, is connected to how issues of class and poverty as a whole, irrespective of race, have been pushed to the edges of our awareness. Even in the midst of this deep recession, the emerging clichés about how “everyone’s suffering these days” seem to say little about how, in our economic system, huge swaths of society always suffer a lot more than others.

But white poverty in particular has been kept out of view. Granted, those concerned with poverty are rightfully focused on the disproportionate poverty rates among minority populations. But there’s more to the story. Yale political scientist Martin Gilens published a study in 1996 showing that, though white people constituted the majority of the nation’s poor, the majority of poor people represented in the media were black. Gilens speculated that this resulted, in part, from the fact that poor whites tended to be dispersed throughout economically heterogeneous neighborhoods, whereas poor black people tended to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty–simply put, they were easier to photograph. But more importantly, the photo editors of the magazines that overrepresented poor blacks themselves misunderstood the racial distribution of poverty and made their photo selections based on their intuitive and prejudiced sense of “what the poor should look like”–to both themselves and their readership.

Media representation may also have influenced public perception. According to Gilens’s study, Americans at the time were inclined to believe, erroneously, that the majority of the poor people in the country were black.3 These perceptions persist. It seems to run counter to common wisdom about poverty that, until 2010, white children represented the largest group of poor children in the United States. Or that in the 2010 census, whites constituted about 60 percent of the population below the poverty line. To be clear, the percentage of minorities below the poverty line compared to the entire minority population is much higher than that among whites. But the sheer volume of white poverty often goes unnoticed.

The misrepresentation of poverty in contemporary media, as well as our own misperceptions of poverty, have obviously been damaging to the African American community and other minority groups. As Tim Wise–essayist, author, and outspoken critic of white privilege–wrote in 2003, earlier representations of poverty that focused on the poor whites of the Dust Bowl and Appalachia evoked sympathy from the public and encouraged the understanding that poverty resulted from systemic forces largely uncontrollable by individuals. But when representations of poverty shifted dramatically toward blacks in the 1970s, Americans began to view the poor not as victims, but as “perpetrators of social decay.”

Yet Wise also points out that the underrepresentation of white poverty has “blowback effects” on the white poor themselves. For one, the public’s scorn for the poor and for welfare programs creates an environment in which poor people of all ethnicities–including poor whites–are unable to have their needs met. He also details the peculiar psychology that emerges when you’re poor and white in a culture that makes it appear as though poor white people do not, and perhaps cannot, exist.

[T]o be white and poor in a nation that is rooted in the notion of white domination and supremacy is to fail to live up to that society’s expectations; and to fail to live up to those expectations–which because of racial privilege are higher for whites than for others–is to render oneself vulnerable to a special kind of stigma. It is to be an exceptionally spectacular screw-up, which can lead one to not only be shunned by other whites, but to develop a crippling amount of self-doubt as well.

Moreover, progressives, among the most outspoken allies of the poor on the mainstream political landscape, appear less eager to address white poverty, perhaps because to do so would distract from the very real needs of poor minorities, as though there’s some zero-sum economy of compassion–which in today’s political climate, there may well be.

The net effect of all of this, however, is that poor white people don’t seem to have any source of information that explains to them how their interests are often the same as those of poor minorities. In Wise’s words, “Historically, this is how both racism and the class system have been maintained, by playing off whites against people of color, offering the former just enough advantage in relative terms to keep them from aligning with the poor of color and rebelling on the basis of their absolute condition.”

If our class system encourages poor whites to fabricate distinctions between themselves and poor minorities, it seems equally concerned with maintaining distinctions between the white poor and the rest of the white population. In Nell Irvin Painter’s 2010 book, The History of White People, she explains that racial distinctions are not based on any biological or genetic realities, but are purely social constructs. Painter argues that the concept of whiteness has been used in the U.S. to define and redefine who is American and who has access to power and wealth. Groups we’d automatically consider white today, such as the Irish and Italians, were originally outside the fold. And because whiteness has been a way to convey and reproduce power, the presence of poor people within that fold has often been fraught. Nineteenth-century eugenicists, for example, asserted that certain Southern whites were “degenerate”–that is, poor and prone to criminality–because their English ancestors were convicts, while the wealthier classes had more respectable family lineages. White people, if they were experiencing poverty, weren’t really “white” after all.

The concept of whiteness certainly still exists as a way to delineate power and powerlessness. But today, instead of crafting pseudoscientific schemes to actively exclude poor whites, those that shape our discourse seem content to pretend they don’t exist.

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Yet perhaps whites still mark the “degenerate” among themselves, but more subtly so; perhaps whites of greater means still crave evidence that poor whites are not “us,” and cling to the symbols of their difference. Perhaps meth is such a symbol. Perhaps meth allows us to feel distance from poverty–and to keep at bay our fear that poverty might someday find us–by showing that poverty is only for the sort of derelict creature who could make the inconceivable choice to consume that hideous drug.

Meth, that is, creates an “other,” something we could never be. I’m thinking of the delight many take in the famous “Faces of Meth” campaign, which juxtaposes addicts’ pre-meth mug shots with later mug shots, demonstrating the grotesque effects of the drug. It’s meant to scare people off, but it also provides viewers a cathartic celebration of their own class position.

When put into the context of inland and coastal California, this dynamic is amplified. For denizens of the Bay Area, with their region’s futuristic industries, its tension between progressive politics and aggressive capitalist enterprise, its affluence, its concentration of poverty into avoidable enclaves, its resentment of conservative middle America–low-income whites are sometimes a welcome joke, something that doesn’t have to be understood, people upon whom stereotypes and condescension can be exacted guiltlessly. And meth is preciously tangible assurance that a poor person with whom they share a state and a deeply intertwined history is nonetheless fundamentally different.

The sense of exclusion that comes with being poor might also be amplified for the residents of inland California. In the Valley, you may feel you’ve been left behind in some jobless no-man’s land, but unlike those broke farmers in Iowa, Google headquarters is just on the other side of the hills to the west.

So what is it to be a poor, white person in inland California? Unless you’ve lived that life, it’s impossible to say. But I can start to decode why meth provides such a powerful symbol, in my own imagination, for this particular population in a particular part of California: you live in the invisible part of a famous state; you’re a powerless member of a social category that’s meant to represent power. You’re poor and white at a time when poor white people aren’t supposed to exist. Your local politicians, the guys on the radio, and Fox News all evangelize an ideology of pure capitalism that sees no exterior hindrances to success and describes all failures as the result of deficits in will and ability. The liberals in your town and to the west, with an eye on demographic realities and institutional injustices, are likely to point out that your race makes you more likely to succeed. Yet you haven’t. And your family hasn’t for generations.

Those grim ironies reflect–funhouse-mirror style–the sensations of meth. A sense of purpose, of being visible and powerful, of being intelligent and dynamic, of having the inside knowledge that is going to vault you to the top of the pyramid. And that secret stash of burls is a tiny mimicry of the storied hedge-fund manager sailing through these hard times, rich as hell.

These anxieties and these desires, while not exclusive to inland California, may be difficult for our coastal friends to grasp. My wife and I mostly just brushed against them among friends and at school. But there they throb in the Valley, and all we can think to call them is “meth.”


  1. I’ve heard the term “meth” and its synonyms–”crystal meth,” “crank,” “ice,” etc.–used loosely, sometimes even interchangeably with “coke.” To clarify, “meth” refers to methamphetamine, which has nothing to do with cocaine. It’s a synthetic drug discovered by a Japanese chemist in 1919. Its key ingredient can be either ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which have also been the key ingredients in popular over-the-counter cold medicines. Its auxiliary ingredients are also legal in the U.S., often available as household products. But once all the ingredients are properly synthesized, they create a highly addictive, illicit stimulant, which is snorted, injected, or smoked by its users.
  2. According to Steve Suo’s groundbreaking reporting for The Oregonian, this mid-’90s surge followed the Amezcua brothers–early meth industry giants–briefly gaining unfettered access to overseas ephedrine, then the primary ingredient for meth, and the subsequent introduction of the modern superlab into California.
  3. The media also overrepresented “unsympathetic” poverty–the jobless poor–and underrepresented “sympathetic” poverty–the working poor and the elderly. Gilens asserted that this imagined version of poverty, blacker and less sympathetic than real poverty, influenced the public’s opposition to welfare.