Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 12

Which is the one about meth.

The premise of Breaking Bad involves a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher receiving a cancer diagnosis and deciding to manufacture methamphetamine as a way to provide for his family when he's gone.  The show is going into its fifth season and much has happened since that single sentence set the ball rolling back in Season 1. The "good man driven to bad acts" theme has been used before - viewers like seeing how a person reacts to desperation, I suppose.  But why methampetmaine (hereinafter, just called "meth")?  I mean, couldn't Walt just stick up liquor stores?  And how bad is meth anyway?


Meth is strange among drugs in that it is synthetic.  Most drugs - as is true of most medicines in general - are derived from natural components.  (Aspirin, for example, has its start in willow bark.  Click here for an interesting read on that - including the fact that both Aspirin and Heroin were trademarks that were given up as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.)  Meth is a weird one.  It was first synthesized from ephedrine in Japan at the end of the 1800s.  The term comes from the chemical structure of the resulting compound:  methyl alpha-methylphenlethylamine.  There is some speculation that meth occurs naturally in two varieties of Acacia trees, but that research has not been replicated, so as of today, meth is strictly a synthetic drug, meaning you have to have a lab to produce it.  OK - right up Walter White's alley.

As it true with all street drugs, meth varies wildly in quality - remember that in Season 1, Jesse's "signature" in his trash meth is the addition of chili powder.  Walt insists on "clean room" quality and his goal is to produce the purest meth ever seen.  He's a good chemist - an extraordinary one, in fact - and he does just that.  This is a skill that brings him to the attention of any number of (drug) business-minded folk and the danger escalates.

To Walt, it's all about the chemistry.  He doesn't use the product and doesn't have any desire to.  Walt is a scientist in the pure sense of the word.  Great, but that "pure sense of the word" ignores the fact that his product wreaks destruction on those who consume it.  I think of Walt in the desert and I'm reminded of the fact that the Trinity Test was also located out in the great sands of New Mexico.  Solving equations and formulas is just terrific, but it may be wise to occasionally ask, "Hey, why do those guys with the big guns want the answers so badly?  They don't look like they care that much about chemistry."

So just how bad is meth?  It's listed as a Schedule II drug of the Controlled Substances Act in the U.S., meaning it has limited medicinal uses (meth is sometimes used for the treatment of narcolepsy and considering its stimulant effects, that makes a certain amount of sense).  Since meth can be whipped up at home using trash recipes found on the Internet (seriously, anything that includes brake fluid and/or lye as ingredients should never be introduced into the human body), states have tried various strategies to make getting the raw ingredients harder, which is why Sudafed and other cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is kept behind the counter in most drugstores.  Most cooks don't have Walt's skill or quality standards, but that really doesn't give Walt an out here.

Meth is a highly addictive drug and overcoming the addiction (which is often accompanied by mental depression, another factor in treating the addict) is notoriously difficult.  Use of the drug often leads to "meth mouth," which is advanced tooth decay due to a combination of factors, including aggressive teeth grinding, poor oral hygiene (most tweakers don't floss; imagine that), and consumption of a lot of sugary soft drinks and junk food.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the ingestion of brake fluid, lye and other such substances often found in meth just might have a touch to do with it, too.  Addiction leads to any number of bad decisions - "Peekaboo" gives us a peek at that aspect of the drug trade.

On top of all this is the debris left behind by the manufacture of meth, which is so long-lastingly toxic that hazmat suits are often required to conduct a safe clean up of the property.  Remember Jesse's basement?

Walt wants his legacy to be the purest meth on the planet.  He can do his best to make it clean, but what Walt is doing is not victimless and it's not an academic exercise in formula application.

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