ChemTales: 'Breaking Bad' and the Year in Drugs

The hysteria and hard truths of a chemical-heavy year in the real world and fictional ones

Aaron Paul Bryan Cranston Breaking Bad
Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston as Jesse Pinkman and Walter White on 'Breaking Bad'
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This September, while 10.3 million Americans tuned in to AMC's Breaking Bad to watch the exploits of Walter White come to an end, the Drug Enforcement Administration was operating an undercover sting ripped straight from the show's playbook. A network of five people from four countries had arranged to smuggle 100 kilos of methamphetamine into the United States from North Korea — an unlikely center of meth manufacturing, but one that mirrors the rise in Asian drug exporting. Produced, according to a DEA report, by a crime syndicate based in Hong Kong, the meth was seized in Thailand, where armed members of the "Outlaw Motorcycle Club" were to transport the narcotics via boat to an undisclosed address in New York City. Like Walter White's "Blue Sky," the meth was 99 percent pure.

Inside Breaking Bad: A Rolling Stone Cover Story

Breaking Bad captivated the country's imagination, and received far more media coverage than the real-life U.S. drug ops happening here and around the world. But, as with the aforementioned scheme, sometimes the reality was even more fascinating, more captivating, than the TV show's serrated storylines. The perpetrators of the Hong Kong criminals were arraigned in November, but this year the DEA also cracked down on meth operations in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Washington State. South of the border, the Mexican authorities handed down 15 indictments to members of various cartels, including, in March, the Sinaloa Cartel's Jose Guadalupe Tapia-Quintero, who'd been accused of using his tractor-trailer business to launder money for his meth distribution network all over the American Southwest.

Such widespread penetration makes plain why meth is becoming troublingly prevalent in the U.S., not just in longtime hotspots like Oregon, Nevada, Missouri and Kentucky, but also among suburban housewives, as chronicled in Miriam Boeri's new book Women on Ice. And what was the threat of the television show's fictional blue meth, for instance, when compared to the grisly reality of krokodil, known colloquially as "the zombie drug" and scientifically as desomorphine. Krokodil, as so many terrifying news reports reminded us, is a morphine derivative that not only turns users' skin scaly and reptilian-looking, it eats away at the flesh, a side-effect of damaged tissues that can debilitate into gangrene. In October, the first U.S. cases of krokodil side-effects were reported, including that of a Missouri man who lost a finger. It seemed, though, that the brouhaha may have been premature: In December, the American Journal of Medicine review that initially declared desomorphine a "designer drug" with "serious consequences" was retracted, reportedly due to patient privacy concerns and lack of a full review. The DEA review is still pending, and the agency hasn't seized any quantities of the drug since 2004. But, of course, krokodil's dark threat is too dramatic not to craft into a juicy headline, so expect more sensational local news reports — and grisly photographs — going into 2014.

Has America Lost the War on Drugs?

A more concrete stateside threat was heroin. In late August, the Wall Street Journal reported that over the last ten years, overdose deaths have jumped by 55 percent over the past decade and, more alarmingly, users have risen by 53 percent over the past year, with many addicts concentrated in small towns across the country. Reports across the country reflected the drug's ascendance; the Philadelphia Inquirer noted overdoses in its city leapt 250 percent from 2011 to 2012, while the Hartford Courant reported on Willimantic, a town with a population of just 12,000, as the improbable hub of the Connecticut heroin trade. Heroin's spread, both in rural and urban areas, was attributed to its price and availability as compared to costly prescription opiates like oxycontin and vicodin.

Molly — MDMA, or ecstasy, or "E" for those of us who lived through the Nineties — has been the biggest drug story of the past few years, no longer linked solely to the resurgence of dance music culture in America but also to rappers of all stripes, both good-timers and maudlin misanthropes. Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything" landed in December of 2012, but its "popped a molly I'm sweatin" refrain resonated through 2013, dovetailing perfectly with America's EDM peak.

Unfortunately, molly's ain't all that's in there. While pop culture touts the benefits of MDMA — euphoria, the ability to dance all night — drug safety and harm reduction organizations like Dance Safe report that narcotics being sold as "molly" are frequently comprised of other substances, including amphetamines and, gasp, bath salts. Over the summer, several deaths linked to consumption of what was thought to be molly led to the shut down of various corporate raves, including New York's Electric Zoo. But while the Electric Zoo deaths were reported as "linked to molly," as of December, the victims — a 23-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman — still had inconclusive toxicology reports, with no decisive information about what substances they ingested or how they died. As with krokodil, the media loved a trumped-up story — particularly one associated with dance festivals, still perceived as Dionysian free-for-alls — and assumptions were often reported as fact.

Nine Signs That Pot Legalization Is Coming Soon

One substance that got a break in 2013, though, was marijuana. The intoxicant has been experiencing a more relaxed public reputation since the 2012 referendums in Washington and Colorado paved the way for legal recreational use. More green legislation — including full legalization — look to be on their way in states like New York and California for 2014. As a result, the sales of weed paraphernalia were on the uptick — like the e-cig, the electronic vaporizer was a portable and smokeless way to sneak in a puff. And with Uruguay becoming the first nation to legalize the pot trade in December, it looks like the cannabis clampdown is slowly, and surely, going up in smoke. 

See All of Rolling Stone's 2013 Year-End Stories

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