The Emmy Award-winning drama series Breaking Bad wraps up its final season next Sunday, September 29, ending a five-season run that introduced millions of fans to the meth business.
Breaking Bad chronicles the moral decline of Walter White, a chemistry teacher who evolves into a drug kingpin to support his family after a terminal cancer diagnosis. White enters the world of large-scale methamphetamine production and sales while staying one step ahead of the authorities.
But how plausible is White’s swift rise (and fall) in the meth business? To separate fact from fiction, STATEside turns to Distinguished Professor Ralph A. Weisheit from Illinois State University’s Department of Criminal Justice Sciences. Weisheit’s research interests include rural methamphetamine production, and he’s the co-author of the 2009 book Methamphetamine: Its History, Pharmacology and Treatment.
As someone with such vast experience studying all sides of meth production, abuse, and treatment, what do you think of Breaking Bad?
Breaking Bad is a very well written show and is tremendously entertaining. It is a mix of truth and fiction but has a heavier dose of truth than one usually finds in television dramas. What ultimately makes it a good show is not just the attention to technical details about meth production and distribution, but that it is also a morality play about how good people can engage in evil acts.
What does Breaking Bad get right when it depicts meth?
The creators of Breaking Bad had some knowledgeable people advising them. There are too many points of accuracy to list them all, but a few are worth mentioning.
For example, one of the early episodes shows Walt, the chemistry teacher turned meth cook, and his associate Jesse, the former student and amateur meth cook, manufacturing methamphetamine. The equipment they use is spot on and they were making meth with what is known as the red phosphorous or Red-P method—a method common in the West. The show accurately shows the importance of access to precursor chemicals and how the limited access to ephedrine/pseudoephedrine led them to switch to what is known as the P2P method, a method frequently used in large scale production. It is a method to which Mexican producers turned after Mexico outlawed all ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in 2008.
The show accurately reflects the level of honor, almost reverence, shown to meth cooks who are able to produce a highly potent product. There is also a powerful example of child neglect by extreme users, and there are examples of the paranoia that goes with heavy use. The show accurately illustrates some of the problems that arise in conducting an illicit drug business.
In general, the enforcement side of the story is also pretty accurate, particularly the actions of the DEA. They monitor the kind of meth sold on the street for clues as to who is producing, and they rely heavily on informants. As in the show, in real life many narcotics agents exhibit a passion for their work. For them it is not simply a job, but a calling.
What does Breaking Bad get wrong?
In the end the show is fiction and takes some liberties to keep the audience interested. Hank, the DEA agent and brother-in-law of Walt, the meth cook, experiences much more violence than most agents will ever see. It also is unimaginable that he and his partner would meet and try to arrest Walt in the desert without backup nearby, given that they consider him both a major producer/distributor of meth and a violent man.
As with other depictions of the drug business there is also a distorted image of the money involved. While it is true that the very highest levels of the business can make a great deal of money, most low-level dealers make very little. The structure of the drug business has sometimes been compared to the structure of a legitimate business, such as McDonald’s. A few at the top become very rich, but the vast majority gets by on minimum wage. The show also exaggerates the level of violence in the meth business, at least as it operates in the U.S. The violence depicted in the show is pretty accurate for Mexican trafficking organizations. Drug trafficking in the U.S. is violent, but the violence usually doesn’t reach the level shown in the program.
In the show, the meth produced by the P2P method was described as just as pure at that produced by the Red-P (ephedrine) method. In the real world, the P2P method is used for large scale production but yields a product that is less potent than that produced by the Red-P method.
Why is meth such an interesting subject for you to continue exploring?
For me, meth is interesting on a variety of levels. First, I have had a long standing interest in the general issue of illicit drugs. Second, meth is one of the few illicit drugs (marijuana aside), that is produced domestically. Third, as a domestic drug it is our problem and not one we can blame on other countries.
Fourth, in addition to its psychopharmacological effects, meth that is produced domestically is unique among drugs in that the production process yields hazardous waste that endangers children present during meth production, contaminates the buildings in which it is made and the soil onto which meth trash is dumped. Fifth, I have a longstanding interest in rural crime, and meth production is largely a rural phenomenon, particularly in the Midwest. Sixth, meth tends to exaggerate existing urges in its users. For example, a violent person is likely to be more violent under the influence of meth and someone with a strong sex drive will be even more sexual under the influence of meth.
Finally, meth is a drug that has attained almost mythical status. On the one hand it is been labeled “The Most Dangerous Drug on Earth,” while it is also a drug that is legally available by prescription for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, or extreme obesity.
How do you think pop culture depictions of meth affected its real impact?
As has happened in the past with other drugs, pop culture depictions of meth paint a distorted picture of the drug and that leads to distorted responses. Meth has been described as instantly addictive, but no drug is instantly addictive. For most (but not all) who try the drug it is instantly pleasurable, but that is not the same as addictive. There are controlled users of the drug and those who receive the drug from their doctor with a legal prescription seldom become addicted. The hideous teeth of heavy meth users is a reality for some, but not most meth users. It is also a reality for some, but not most, users of other drugs. There were initial reports that no effective treatment existed for meth, similar to what was once said about cocaine. That isn’t true. Abusers respond to treatment with success rates similar to that for other drugs.
There is no question that methamphetamine is a drug about which society should be concerned, just as it should be concerned about heroin, cocaine, and prescription drug abuse. However, our response to the drug should be based on what we know, not on our worst fears.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.