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Tom Arnold and sister Lori share troubled childhood, addiction in 'Queen of Meth' doc

Tom Arnold's sister Lori went from drug user to one of the most prolific meth dealers in the Midwest.
Lori Arnold hopes that the film will show people that drugs can happen to anyone.
Lori Arnold hopes that the film will show people that drugs can happen to anyone.Karolina Wojtasik
/ Source: TODAY

Tom Arnold made a name for himself on the hit show "Roseanne" and in movies like "True Lies." But his story of growing up in an unstable family in Ottumwa, Iowa is in many ways more dramatic than any role he's played on the big or small screen. Now, his younger sister Lori Arnold is the subject of a new documentary, "Queen of Meth," which tells the story of her ascent from small time drug user to one of the most influential meth dealers in the Midwest.

At the high point of her drug dealing career, she was manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine, raking in around $200,000 a week. Her brother Tom, who had moved on to a successful life in Hollywood which ultimately included sobriety, tried to support her but the lure of drugs brought her to federal prison and left her 10-year-old son to grow up without his mother.

"I was always her big brother," Tom Arnold, 62, told TODAY. "I’m grateful she’s alive."

The two collaborated on the documentary, now airing on Discovery+, but it wasn't an easy road to get there.

"I’m getting older and reflecting back and I figured this was the time [to tell my story]," Lori Arnold, 60, told TODAY. "I was a teenager wanting to be an adult," she said regarding how she got started with drugs growing up. "My mother fed into that and let me be an adult at 14," she said of her mother who drove her across state lines so she could marry a 23-year-old at that age. "I thought that’s cool back then. Looking back, there’s no way I would do that with my son."

Arnold said that meth came to her in Iowa at a young age when she was bored and depressed. She liked how it made her feel and started sharing it with her friends.

"When I tried it, I liked it," she said. "It got me out of the doldrums. I wasn’t worried about my problems. We lived in a poor community. I want to make my friends feel good." But soon her friends were coming to her, wanting more and things "blew way out."

Tom Arnold said that in a way, him becoming a famous comedian and actor was even more unlikely than his sister becoming the "Queen of Meth."

"I just wanted something outside of there," he said of his life growing up. "I dreamed of being in show business. After high school, I worked in a meatpacking plant and thought there's a chance I’ll be here forever. I got a feeling if I stay out of trouble, I’ll get the opportunity to do more," he said.

"Queen of Meth" is a three-part series airing now on Discovery +.
"Queen of Meth" is a three-part series airing now on Discovery +.Courtesy Discovery +

As the actor and comedian left Iowa and found success in Hollywood, his sister stayed behind. But even as she dealt drugs, at the same time, she put money back into her community.

"I paid taxes, I payed my employees, I wanted them to have something. I tried to do the business part right," she said.

But things spiraled out of control, leading to her eventual arrest.

"When I got to prison it was scary," she said. "I’d never been to jail. I met a lot of people in for drug crimes. It made me feel really bad as being a supplier. The guilt started happening there." At her brother's urging, Arnold wrote an autobiography to try and deal with her emotions and understand herself better.

"Me and Tom were always close growing up," she said, noting how having a famous brother was like a "layer of protection" in prison and that he paid for her lawyer. "Tom’s always been there when I needed him," she said. "I love him."

Tom Arnold said that he always felt his sister was capable of accomplishing anything. "She’s very smart and did well in school until she got married," he explained. He said that his sister had to be "extra tough and powerful" in order to rise up among the bikers in her community who he said were "just so misogynistic."

"Women in that world were looked at as someone to give a ride to on the back of a bike," he said. "There were women that just enjoyed that." But Lori, like his former wife, Roseanne Barr, was different. "My first wife was a strong, outspoken women. They had a few things in common," he said.

Lori Arnold hopes that the film will show people that drugs can happen to anyone. "It’s easy to get into it if you’re bored and lonely and have low self-esteem," she said. "It snowballs so hard. You get addicted to it. I didn’t realize I was an addict. It’s something you don’t just walk away from."

Ryan Cain, president of Nashville Recovery Center told TODAY that addiction is a family disease that impacts not just the addict, but the people around them. He said it's not uncommon for a family's past to impact substance abuse.

"Trauma at some level is almost always involved with substance use issues," said Cain. "Most people will encounter some type of traumatic experience in their lifetime. Substance use is an easy fix to medicate or numb the problem. Individuals often find an external solution like drugs for an internal problem, trauma or emotional issues, because it changes the way they feel instantly."

Cain said that to address trauma, many people go to workshops that specialize in these issues. "Therapists and clinicians provide several types of trauma treatment modalities that can be done in individual sessions." However, he said that addressing trauma is not feasible while someone is still abusing alcohol or drugs since those substances numb the mind and emotions. "An abstinence-based recovery program should be worked before trying to address trauma issues."

These days, Lori Arnold lives with her fiancé in Ohio and works 10 hour days in a manufacturing plant, driving a cherry picker and loading boxes.

"When I get home I’m tired," she said. "I'm ready for bed at 8:00. If it’s nice out, we have a Harley and we ride," she said. "We go fishing. We don’t go bar hopping. I drink beer at home."

It's a far cry from her former life as the "Queen of Meth."

"I’m happy to be sober and I'm happy I don’t have to look over my shoulder," she said. "I’m happy I got the opportunity to tell the truth. I don’t want to embellish or glorify. I want people to know how it happened to me."

"Sobriety has saved my life," said Tom Arnold. "It’s why I can be a good parent."

These days, he's busy being the parent he wished he and his sister had growing up.

"Nobody watched out for us, especially for Lori," he said. "She’s a good person and I’m proud of the way she’s dealt with this," he said of his sister. "She owned it, she did the time for her crime. I’m glad she’s alive."

"Queen of Meth" is a three-part series airing now on Discovery+.