January 5th, 2024
The American TV show Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) was met with widespread public and critical acclaim. The AMC production revolves around teacher turned unlikely meth mogul Walter White (Bryan Cranston), whose diagnosis of cancer leads him to use his knowledge of chemistry for clandestine purposes. White teams up with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) – a former student of White’s – who now works as a ‘meth cook.’
Whilst the show is undoubtedly successful – running for five seasons and leading to the spin-off show Better Call Saul (2015 – 2022) – how accurate is its representation of meth production?
What intricate processes are involved in the development of meth off-screen? How does this illegal manufacturing ultimately lead to public health risks? How dangerous is meth addiction. and what are the social, legal and health repercussions when we move outside of the TV show back into reality?
Making Meth, Breaking Bad: Methods of Production
Meth: The Basics
Meth (short for methamphetamine) is a stimulant. Stimulant drugs primarily affect users by acting on the Central Nervous System (CNS). Meth belongs to the family of amphetamine drugs and is known specifically as an amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS).
Meth can be taken in several different ways:
- It can be smoked,
- Swallowed or ingested in pill form
- Or injected after being dissolved in liquid
Meth’s main effect is on the dopamine receptors in the brain, meaning that meth use often stimulates feelings of reward, motivation and generally pleasant sensations.
It is these pleasant sensations that users of meth are typically chasing. However, with increased frequency of use, it can be harder to achieve these sensations as the body becomes more tolerant.
That means that more meth needs to be used for the body to feel the effect of its presence. This then catalyses the addiction cycle, ultimately leading to the development of dependency.
Meth: The Making
Several chemists have developed meth as we know it today over time. Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi identified a substance called ephedrine in 1885. This substance is the active chemical found in the Chinese ephedra shrub.
Years later, Akira Ogata found a way to reduce ephedrine. Thus, in 1919, Ogata was the first to create crystal meth. Ogata did this in a process that involved treating ephedrine with red phosphorus and iodine.
Following restrictions on meth production and distribution in the 1970s, meth manufacture went from a chemical, medical endeavour to the production of illicit substances that had been driven underground. Since then, the drug has largely been developed by transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) based in Mexico. Whilst the majority of methamphetamine is smuggled across national borders, it is not uncommon for smaller-scale laboratories (such as those depicted in Breaking Bad) to manufacture crystal meth in the nation of sale.
Since the 1990s, illegal meth labs have proliferated. These labs may create meth on smaller scales to the transnational crime organisations manufacturing the drugs, but this lab-made crystal meth still carries all the dangers of meth trafficked over the national border.
These labs have been known to use pseudoephedrine – a drug used to treat colds, asthma and sinusitis – as a substrate in place of ephedrine.
This is because pseudoephedrine is very easy to get hold of. It is then treated in a similar mode to ephedrine – through processes of ‘cooking’ – to produce forms of crystal meth.
One of the main concerns with meth is that large-scale labs and sophisticated equipment are not necessarily required to produce the desired result. This worry has led to some restrictions on pseudoephedrine access in Mexico.
However, concern still stands. With meth production requiring only a handful of chemicals:
- some form of substrate (typically ephedrine or psudoephedrine)
- red phosphorous
- and lithium
The worry about who can produce meth and where is a genuine concern, not only across America, but across the globe.
Different methods of crystal meth production including catalytic reduction and the use of alternative substrates indicate that producers of meth are becoming more creative with the resources they use.
This not only risks the further proliferation of meth use, but also potential environmental impacts, as the combination of chemicals carries dangers during production as well as during use.
The Dangers of Meth
Meth has been nicknamed ‘America’s most dangerous drug’ for a myriad of reasons.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the number of meth-related deaths is on the increase.
In 2020, a total of 24,576 people living in America died after overdosing on methamphetamine or other psychostimulants.
By the following year, this number had risen to 32,856 deaths in the space of a calendar year.
The 2022 World Drug Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claims that ‘nearly one in two people using amphetamine-type stimulants’ is a woman,’ but that only ‘one in five in treatment for ATS’ are women.
This indicates that there is a huge unmet treatment need among meth users, with the report explicitly stating that ‘people in need of treatment cannot get it.’
This is concerning as it not only suggests the very real limitations of our current state-funded treatment systems, it also indicates that a continuation of the lack of support is likely to lead to an even further increase in addiction-related mortality rates.
Side effects of Crystal Meth
The side effects of most drugs can be categorised into two key types: short-term and long-term effects.
Meth has a particularly dangerous set of complex medical side effects, even with short-term usage.
Short-term effects of meth use:
- Increases heart rate
- Increases blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Decreases appetite
- Promotes feelings of ‘exhilaration’ or ‘euphoria’
- Feelings of alertness or sharpness, as though very awake
- Feelings of agitation, as though on edge
- Feelings of paranoia
- Feelings of aggression
- Feelings of arousal
- Causes potential aggression
- Causes hallucinations
- Potential seizures
Long-term effects of meth use:
- Risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- Cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle)
- Psychosis (specifically methamphetamine-induced psychosis)
- Cerebral vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels in the brain)
- Cortical blindness or loss of vision
- Ishemic strokes (stroke due to a blood clot in the brain)
- Hyperthermia (abnormally high temperature)
- Rhabdomyolsis (dissolution of muscle cells)
- Increased risk of developing HIV or hepatitis through needle use
- Damage to the renal system (liver and kidney)
The best thing to do to mitigate the side effects of drugs is to work towards getting clean. However, that does not mean that meth withdrawal is not challenging. After the body is exposed to a substance for a period of time, it can get used to functioning with it. The body then needs to adjust to its absence. It is almost as though the body and the brain need to relearn how things run without substances present.
This process is known as a detox. A detox is one of the key stages in the path to stop taking meth; it allows the body to resettle and gives you some time to feel more in control of things.
Meth detox can be supported through specific forms of medically assisted detox, using regulated medicines such as lorazepam and droperidol.
In the UK, drug classification systems mean that the legal consequences of producing and distributing meth are dire. If you are found to be manufacturing or supplying meth, you could be issued an unlimited fine, be sentenced to up to life in prison, or both.
Get Support for Crystal Meth Addiction
If you are concerned about how to stop taking crystal meth, there are options available to help you curb your addiction. Our dedicated team at UKAT can talk you through the different types of intervention we offer (including supervised meth detox and dedicated meth rehab) to help you decide what form of support would best suit you.
Contact us today and make a referral to begin treatment at one of our specialist rehab centres.
(Click here to see works cited)