How Meth Works

Breaking Bad
Walter Hartwell White from "Breaking Bad" is seen holding his trademark blue meth during the Birmingham MCM Comic Con held at NEC Arena on Nov. 18, 2017 in Birmingham, England. Ollie Millington/Getty Images

"Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." So says Walter White to his sidekick Jesse in the drug-heavy TV hit "Breaking Bad." Walter is a common man who plunges dangerously into the world of methamphetamine, a substance that continues to sprawl — in empire fashion — across much of America and the rest of the world.

Meth is by no means a fictional plot point in a cable television program. Whether you call it meth, crystal meth, ice, Chrissy, crank or tweak, it's an ultra-common stimulant that's spanned generations [source: Foundation for a Drug Free World]. Like nicotine, cocaine, or even caffeine, stimulants — or "uppers"— seem to be a fixture in societies all over the world. But meth has a history all its own.


In the World War II era, soldiers commonly used meth to fight off fatigue, hunger — and terror. Later, it gained traction with counterculture types alongside other recreational drugs. Once shunned by the wealthy as a substance of the poor, meth now stands in as a substitute (or flat-out replacement) for cocaine and other stimulants in the inner city, rural areas and suburbs [source: Pew].

In the 1990s, backwoods trailer meth production was the stuff of everyday headlines: Amateur chemist gets careless with his concoction, and boom! His homemade lab — and often, his life — goes up in spectacular flames. Nowadays, those kinds of explosive news stories are a rarity, but not because meth has disappeared; rather its production methods have changed dramatically, as have its distribution methods. In the meantime, the number of users and abusers continues to rise [sources: Argus Observer, Abadi].

Meth's appeal lies in its powerful biological and psychological punch. Users report overwhelming highs and incredible energy, which helps them to do more work in less time, and keeps them awake for many hours or even days without even so much as a bite of food for fuel [source: NIH]. Are you slaving away at two jobs or just an enterprising workaholic hoping to make millions as a venture capitalist? Meth might lure you with its heart-racing appeal.

If that description makes meth sound like a modern-day chemical superfood, it's because the side effects aren't always immediately evident. In regular users, crystal meth slowly but surely causes physical harm to every system of the human body, including hallmark traits like skin deterioration and decaying teeth, along with paranoia, anxiety, aggression and, you know, death [source: PBS].

Government crackdowns, public service announcements and cartel infighting have done little to stem meth's grip on society. It's an incredibly powerful drug wrapped into the foibles of human biology, power and trade. So, when our "Breaking Bad" anti-hero Walter White said he was in the empire business, so too is meth itself — it is an empire that's not going away.