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Here’s what ‘Breaking Bad’ gets right, and wrong, about the meth business

Jesse and Walt, straight chillin' in the ABQ. (AMC)

If you aren't watching "Breaking Bad" at the moment, you need to reconsider your life choices and then you need to get thee to Netflix. Each season has been much better than the one that preceded it, and if that keeps up the end of season five is poised to be something else.

But if you've made it this far, you've doubtless wondered whether the meth industry actually works as depicted on the show. Could a genius innovator like Walt really become this successful? Are charismatic businessmen like Gus Fring running front businesses to hide their meth trade? Are super labs real? Let's break down the similarities and differences, topic by topics. Mild spoilers, but I'm not going to spoil anybody's death or anything like that.

Super labs are real

One of the most striking elements of "Breaking Bad" is the "super lab" that Walt and Jesse use to practice their science in seasons three and four. It's a huge, glittery chemistry wonderland full of brand new equipment and high cleanliness standards. It seems much too grandiose for the rough world of meth, right?

Wrong, actually. Experts on the meth market say that superlabs are actually pretty common, at least among manufacturers associated with Mexican cartels. "In 2002/2003, the Sinaloa cartel saw that meth was the next big thing, and started to be active in creating these super labs and making the meth in Mexico," says Sylvia Longmire, a retired Air Force captain, author of "Cartel," and consultant on Mexican drug war issues.

The United States has tight controls on the import and mass purchase of precursor materials to make meth, but they were easier to come by in Mexico, because of the country's weak justice system."Mexico has fairly strong restrictions on precursors, but there's so much corruption that restrictions don't mean a lot," Ralph Weisheit, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State and co-author of "Methamphetamine: Its History, Pharmacology and Treatment," says.

At first, the superlabs were built in Mexico, where the precursor had been imported, and then the resulting product was smuggled into the United States. But that proved too risky, and the cartels have moved to using U.S.-based superlabs. "The biggest benefit to making it here is the distribution," Longmire says. "Getting the chemicals individually into the U.S. is less risky than bringing the final product in…It's different getting caught with that than with 10 pounds of crystal meth." So the idea of a superlab hidden in a laundry in New Mexico actually isn't all that implausible.

It's not that hard to get methylamine

This has been explained well before by Daniel Lametti at Slate, but it bears repeating. A lot of the show's drama derives from Jesse and Walt's efforts to procure methylamine, a precursor chemical. Much meth production uses pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in some over-the-counter cold medicines like Sudafed. But restrictions of Sudafed's sale have made it difficult for meth manufacturers to get in bulk. One way to get around that is by using "smurfs," or individual Sudafed buyers who each get a small amount to avoid suspicion and then sell them to the manufacturer. But at the end of the first season, Jesse and Walt chose to switch to an alternative recipe reliant on methylamine rather than bother with getting all that Sudafed.

Getting that methylamine has been tough for them. They robbed a warehouse in "A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal" to get some, and in the fifth season they robbed a train to get it. But that needn't be so. I'll let Lametti explain:

Chemically speaking, methylamine is just ammonia with one hydrogen atom swapped out for a methyl group—a carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. Without getting into too much detail, an easy way to achieve this swap is to “bubble” ammonia (a gas) through methanol (a liquid) that’s been laced with a dehydrating agent like Silica gel. You could probably buy these chemicals at Home Depot and CVS. Silica gel packets are often packaged with new shoes and electronics to keep them dry.
So why do Walt and Jesse steal methylamine? While making a thousand gallons of the chemical would be expensive, that cost pales in comparison to the profits generated by their business. However, buying a whole bunch of chemicals in bulk would probably attract unwanted attention. (The most likely answer, of course, is that having Walt and Jesse steal methylamine simply makes a good plot point.)

I don't really buy the idea that buying lots of ammonia and methanol would arouse more suspicion than, you know, robbing a train, so I think the "it makes for a good plot point" explanation prevails here. Still, it's a really important plot point, with much of the first half of the fifth season's drama revolving how to get it, how to divvy it up among members of the gang, etc., so it's sort of surprising that Vince Gilligan, et al never bothered to explain why they couldn't just make the methylamine themselves. Update: Here's a good rebuttal to Lametti's argument from a chemist. Who's right is above my paygrade but if Walt agreed with that guy, it's easy to see why he would want to get methylamine another way.

There are two meth markets

Meth experts usually draw a distinction between two types of meth markets. One is informal, and based on meth made in small amounts, often in rural areas, and exchanged through a barter process. "That kind of production tends to be relatively nonviolent," Weisheit says. "You're not fighting over turf or meth that much, and there's not much cash trading hands as typically people are bartering — "you get this and I'll get that," or "I'll split up and you'll all get some," or " if you get these ingredients I'll teach you how to cook." The scale of that production is getting smaller and smaller as precursors get harder to come by. As Stanford med school professor Keith Humphreys points out, states that have made pseudophedrine prescription-only, such as Oregon and Mississippi, have all but eliminated their meth labs.

But its social costs, while large to the users-cum-manufacturers-cum-dealers involved, are largely contained within those social networks. The main risks to the public at large come with explosions and the ensuing environmental impact, and the costs to children in households where this kind of meth production/use is happening. "I think the bad things that home growing produces are mainly damage to environment and to families, because meth users tend not, as a rule, to use it as teens, but in their mid-20s early 30s, so they will use around kids," Weisheit says.

The Mexican market is very violent

And then there's the Mexican market, which is large-scale, cash-heavy, very violent because of turf disputes and disputes over money, and generally much more of a concern. This is where the heavy violence involved in Gus Fring's cartel-like operation starts looking pretty realistic. "Many viewers were repulsed when Walt and Pinkman used acid to melt a body in an early episode," Patrick Reeden Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker who's reported on the business models of Mexican cartels, once wrote. "But this is such a common disposal technique in Mexico today that it has acquired a nickname—the guiso, or 'stew.'"

Keefe also notes that Walt and Jesse's fear that they will be killed if someone else — say, Gale Boetticher — learns their recipe and can cook for Gus is well-founded: "A federal prosecutor in California told me recently about a case in which a group of American ecstasy producers entered negotiations with a Mexican cartel to manufacture large volumes of the drug, but ended up abandoning the deal when they realized that the cartel intended to keep them around just long enough to learn their recipe, then kill them."

And for all the messed up acts of violence that the show's depicted over the years — a certain incident with a box cutter comes to mind, not to mention Tortuga — as Keefe says, there's no topping what Mexican cartels are capable of. The cartel with the most grotesque methods is probably Los Zetas, which once dumped 49 bodies off a highway in Cadereyta, killed six people  — cutting out the hearts of three of them and carving "Z"s into the other three— in Cancun, and has recruited members by holding up buses, forcing passengers off, and them making them perform "gladiator fights" to the death, with the one survivor joining the ranks of Los Zetas. Luckily their leader was recently captured, but that mainly helps their rivals, Sinaloa, who aren't exactly saints themselves.

In this part of the meth market, production typically is a few steps removed from the actual cartel. "A lot of it is subcontracted out, a lot of that is so cartels can insulate themselves from identification and prosecution," Longmire says. "Sometimes it's gang leaders, sometimes friends of friends, and sometimes they have a vague idea of who they're working for, and the cartels prefer it that way, since the guys who are cooking the meth for, say, La Familia, if they're arrested they can't roll on the people they're working for." So it's probably not likely that a cook like Jesse would meet a cartel leader like Don Eladio, as he does in "Salud."

Purity matters — but maybe less so to cartels

One of the most convincing critiques of the show I've read came from The New Inquiry's Malcolm Harris, who argued that the show's obsession with highly pure method — supposedly Walt's calling card, and the thing that got Gus interested in buying his wares — doesn't square with the real world, in which meth is almost always "stepped on," or diluted. There isn't a market for pure meth, not because it's not better, but because of who's buying meth. "It’s a textbook case of what freshman economics students call inelastic demand," Harris writes. "As Stringer Bell told D’Angelo Barksdale in another show about drugs, in direct contrast to what Walter claims, 'When it’s good, they buy. When it’s bad, they buy twice as much. The worse we do, the more money we make.'"

Even if that logic holds, there may still be reasons for Walt to make his meth as pure as possible. "When Walt measures the purity in the lab, he’s figuring out how much of the expensive and tightly controlled precursor chemicals became saleable product and how much went to waste," Lindsay Beyerstein at In These Times has argued. "The purer Walt’s product, the more [distributors] can dilute it." But that doesn't explain why Walt's meth on the street, when found by his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank and analyzed by the agency's experts, is so much purer than other meth out there. Walt's product would only make it to the street like that if there really was demand for purer meth.

So, is there? There certainly is a certain cachet to pure meth in the smaller meth market described above. "For the local cook, the mom and pop operation, there is an enormous amount of status and prestige that goes along with producing high quality stuff," Weisheit says. "There was a researcher who did field research on this, who interviewed a woman who said, 'A cook is a god, what they want they get. If they want sex they'll get sex.'" But Weisheit agrees with Harris that it's less likely that purity will be demanded in the larger, Mexican-run market. "There's not much stepping on it in mom and pop, he says. "You get stepping on it with Mexican distribution networks, but even there people are going to pay more attention to stuff that's really good."

Longmire is more insistent that purity matters. "Obviously, the more pure that you can get it, the higher a price you can charge for it, and the more profit you can make off of it," she says. "There's always a market for higher quality drugs, it's just a question of who affords it." There will be bad, cheap meth, sure, but there are high-end markets for meth too. Weisheit notes that one of the few urban demographics where demand for meth is heavy is among gay men. "You probably don't see meth as a street drug, as it's so often sold in gay clubs where you don't tend to get arrested, and they're kind of out of sight from police," he says. "[Dealers] put up signs in nightclubs, so it's an easy group to reach that way." There will obviously be demand for cheap meth in that market, sure, but there will be more demand for higher-end meth than you'd see in impoverished rural areas.

Meth use is often an economic necessity

One of the things that annoys me about "Breaking Bad" is its occasional depiction of meth users as largely disconnected from society and utterly desperate. That's not always true. There are "functional" addicts, especially working mothers, who rely upon strong stimulants like meth to juggle their sundry responsibilities. One plausible theory has it that the rise of meth coincided with the rise of low-paying low-skilled service work, where people had to work multiple menial jobs to earn the same amount they used to earn in one manufacturing job, or other good-paying low-skilled position.

The CDC notes that some meth users rely on it to get "increased energy to work multiple jobs." Researchers at Indiana University and at the Universities of Colorado and Kentucky have found that, "The long hours and tedious work in oil fields, agriculture, construction, ancillary health care and fast food restaurants may be more tolerable on methamphetamine. Users report using meth to provide the energy to work multiple jobs or be a good mother."

Guides to identifying and treating meth addiction, like Herbert Covey's "The Methamphetamine Crisis," tell readers to look out for, "workaholics or low-income adults who use it to stay awake and perform in multiple jobs. Working low-income individuals find meth attractive because they must work several jobs or long hours to support themselves or their families. They find that higher energy and alertness (ability to stay awake for prolonged periods) helps them cope with the demands of multiple jobs."

This holds up if you look at places where meth use is highest. Hawaii's heavy rate of meth use has been attributed to its high cost of living and service-based economy. "If you're doing mind-numbing, repetitive work, this enables you to overcome both the painful tedium of the boredom as well as increase concentration and safety," Dr. William Haning, a psychiatry professor at the University of Hawaii, once told the Maui News. Weishert notes that Cambodia and other countries in Southeast Asia are the biggest consumers of meth (above even the United States), and it's often used as a work aide. "Women who have to have a job and then do traditional homemaking, they're just exhausted and meth is a pick-me-up, a powerful one," he says.

Laundering happens

In the fourth season, Walt and Skyler buy the car wash — A1A, based on the real-life Octopus car wash in Albuquerque — where Walt used to work in order to launder Walt's copious earnings from the drug trade. Is that level of ceremony, just to clean the money, realistic?

For the highest echelon of cartels, sure. "You see that with the upper level people in an organization," Weisheit says. "The lower level people don't make enough to make it worth doing that. You want to get into a legitimate business, ideally one that deals in cash like a restaurant or bar." Longmire says the higher-ups may be moving on from restaurants and bars, though. "They're using wire transfer companies like Western Union, Moneygram, Coinstar — that's increasingly popular," she says. "They're increasingly using trade-based laundering, where they'll bring in cheap fabrics from Asia and sell those into the U.S., or bring them south to Mexico, and sell them for a much higher dollar value. They're doing it through mining, construction equipment, quarter horses and gambling, casinos and a variety of different businesses."

So yeah, Walt is probably doing the smart thing here. But Badger and Skinny Pete shouldn't sweat it.