LOS ANGELES (CN) - The RV tearing through the New Mexico desert in the opening to “Breaking Bad” introduced us to television anti-hero Walter White, a cancer-ridden school teacher transformed by the end of the series into a mostly heartless meth cook and criminal kingpin.
The image of actor Bryan Cranston’s character touting a pistol and dressed in white undies and a bright green dress shirt has endured, along with the concept of the mobile meth lab embodied in his Fleetwood Bounder – even as domestic production of real-life meth has become increasingly anachronistic.
“Folks, they see the show ‘Breaking Bad,’ and they still have this vision in their head that there's meth labs all over the U.S., and they're pretty rare,” said investigative journalist Scott Thomas Anderson in a phone interview. Anderson has written extensively about meth addiction, including the book “Shadow People: How Meth-driven Crime Is Eating at the Heart of Rural America.”
The reality is that homegrown meth labs have gone the way of the cable subscriptions and DVD box sets that were popular when “Breaking Bad” debuted almost a decade ago.
But that doesn’t mean meth production has dwindled. According to Drug Enforcement Administration officials, the Sinaloa Cartel is the leading player in a poly-drug trade that has largely shifted south of the border. Cartels produce and distribute massive quantities of meth into the U.S. through a route that starts in Southern California, moves northwards and then hooks to the east and into the heartland.
But while the nation and the media focus on the worsening threat of opioids and heroin, some law enforcement officials in Southern California see methamphetamine as a greater threat.
At a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting in May, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the opioid and heroin crises gripping eastern and northwestern cities had touched Los Angeles but that he was more concerned about meth.
“Methamphetamine is something that exacerbates folks that have mental illness issues, and it's a combination that I think is something that we address every day,” Beck said. “It's a very cheap, very long-lasting, very cumulative effect drug. It's one that can have a hugely detrimental impact to somebody that deals with mental health issues. I think that it all ties into what we see and impacts what the department has to deal with.”
The LAPD exposed those impacts in its Use of Force Year-End Review for 2016. A toxicology analysis of suspects in officer-involved shootings revealed that nine out of ten people who died had tested positive for methamphetamine. The partial 2016 percentage represented a six-point increase compared to the four out of nine decedents who had tested positive for methamphetamine in 2015, the report states.
During an interview in City Hall, Police Commission President Matthew Johnson said that while he did not believe that methamphetamine was an issue unique to LA, officials had seen a “huge spike” in its use.
“It is definitely a crisis. It's something that we're very concerned about. It is the drug of the day, unfortunately. Drugs and crimes have gone together forever, and unfortunately the police are not equipped to deal with the underlying issues of drug abuse. The police end up having to deal with the consequences of drug abuse,” Johnson said.