The most striking thing about the methamphetamine crisis in America can be seen by looking at a single map.
Meth isn't a big city problem.
Most drugs have been associated with urban life — acid in San Francisco, Prohibition in Chicago, cocaine in the New York nightclubs of the 80s. But meth is a completely different animal: It's rural, consumed not by monied elite on the East and West Coasts, but by white working-class Americans in the Mid and Southwest.
Meth is a blue collar drug, and you can make it at home. Over the years, its manufacture has been more refined, to the point where it can now be cooked in a bathtub or basement, or a self-made lab.
Methamphetamine is a synthetic chemical, unlike marijuana, which grows naturally. The person making the meth takes ingredients from common cold pills (hence the new restrictions on buying medicines that contain pseudoephedrine). The initial synthesis process is actually very easy, according to Breaking Bad's chemistry adviser, Dr. Donna Nelson. Making a pure and high quality product is the hard part, she said.
To increase the product's strength, the meth "cook" combines the substance with chemicals such as battery acid, drain cleaner, lantern fuel and antifreeze. These dangerous chemicals are potentially explosive, and because the meth cooks are potentially drugged out and disoriented, they are often severely burned and disfigured or killed when their preparations explode.
Still, this hasn't kept meth from taking America by storm. Since exploding onto the American drug scene in the 1980s, meth has spread rapidly across the U.S, but we haven't nailed down a single stronghold for it. In 2005, an analysis by Slate.com showed that U.S. newspapers had used the title “Meth Capitol of the World” to describe over 70 different American towns, cities, and countries, from California to New York.
Perhaps one of the most well known and highly acclaimed books about meth in Middle America is Nick Reding's Methland, for which he spent two years immersing himself in meth-stricken Oelwein, Iowa. The New York Times book review wrote that Reding's book was an "unnerving investigative account of two gruesome years" and describe the town "a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself, in forces almost too great to comprehend and too pitiless to bear. The ravages of meth, or 'crank,' on Oelwein and countless forsaken locales much like it are shown to be merely superficial symptoms of a vaster social dementia caused by ... iron dominion of corporate agriculture and the slow melting of villages and families into the worldwide financial stew."
Reding wrote that meth had a "seeming distinctiveness among drugs" because of “the general resistance to associating narcotic use with small towns."
So where are these "small towns?"
The below maps show where meth labs have been identified and seized. Indiana, Tennessee, and Missouri have the highest rates of lab incidence.
The below interactive map from CNN shows meth labs per county.
In Tulsa County, Oklahoma, police identified 979 contaminated meth lab sites — the most of any county in the nation. In a 26-month period, The Tulsa Police Dept. cleaned up 690 labs at a cost of $118,560,000.
Next up on the graph is Jefferson, Missouri, where there were 472 sites. Outside of labs, the Missouri State Highway Patrol seized 37,295 ounces of methamphetamine in 2011.
Other notable sites of lab concentration include: Summit, Ohio (353 labs); Kanawha, West Virginia (235 labs); and Kalamazoo, Michigan (318 labs.)
Breaking Bad takes place in Bernalillo county, New Mexico. Of all 33 counties in New Mexico, Bernallilo has the highest number of illegal meth labs (97), even though it’s the third smallest in terms of area: 1,1666 square miles. (The county has the largest population, at around 670,000.)
Click on the photo to go to the interactive site and scroll over your county.
Below: distribution of drugs. Red is methamphetamine; blue is cocaine; green is marijuana.
(Source: National Drug Assessment Survey 2007.)
Methamphetamine transportation routes.
Aggregate responses from local law enforcement when asked which drug posed the largest threat. (Over a quarter of them answered meth, over cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and prescription pills.)
(Source: National Drug Intelligence Center.)
According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 1.2 million people (0.4% of the population) reported using methamphetamine in the past year alone, and 440,000 (0.2%) reported using it in the past month. The average age of new methamphetamine users in 2012 was 19.7 years old.
Reuters columnist Jack Shafer, who has written extensively on the drug, said in an interview with PolicyMic that he has never adopted the word “epidemic.” First of all, he said, stimulants of the same sort have a 70-year history in the country. “I don’t think that meth is a mystery drug,” he said. And if we’re not calling alcoholism use or tobacco use an “epidemic,” why would we use the word for another drug?
But the thing is, it doesn’t matter what we call it. It's a problem, yes, but it’s not about meth — it’s about something greater. As Reding writes in Methland, “In truth, all drug epidemics are only in part about the drugs. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. The rise of the meth epidemic was built largely on economic policies, political decisions, and the recent development of American cultural history."
The Washington Post wrote of Methland that “it makes the case that small-town America is perhaps not the moral and hard-working place of the public imagination, but it also argues that big city ignorance — fueled by the media — toward small-town decay is both dangerous and appalling.
Reding summed it up. “If there was a chance to see the place of the small American town in the era of the global economy, the meth epidemic is it.”