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Independence's rap as Meth City USA needs tweaking

It's time to rethink Independence's reputation.



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.

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