Breaking Bad and the War on Drugs

A video made by the Brave New Foundation and titled ‘What Breaking Bad Reveals About the War on Drugs‘ is making the rounds these days. It is brief, well worth a watch,  and made up of rapidly edited clips from the show. It features the following  screen legends–designed in Breaking Bad’s trademark ‘chemical elements letters’ style–that successively make its central points:

The War on Drugs Doesn’t Stop Drug Use

It Just Creates More Violence

And Enriches Drug Lords

Want Safer Streets?

End the Failed War on Drugs

The folks at BNF have it right.

Walter White would never have thought he could make a fortune and provide for his family without his knowledge of the contours of the illegal black market in crystal meth. That drug–like many others–is expensive because it is illegal and ‘scarce’; it promises huge profit margins–its expected payoffs–to those who traffic in it because of this particular peculiarity in its economic standing, And those who deal in it, who distribute it–Krazy 8, Gus Fring, the Mexican cartels–do not appreciate competition, whether it be in the form of law-enforcement agents or rival manufacturers and distributors. The greater the risk involved in bringing the drug to market, the greater the constriction on demand, and correspondingly the greater the price users are willing to pay and dealers to charge. The resultant profits will then be defended ruthlessly, by any means possible; competitors may sometimes, in the best case scenario, be forced out  because of the superior quality of the ‘product’, like Heisenberg’s ‘blue‘, but occasionally that won’t be enough; they may need to eliminated too.

And sometimes, it may not be enough to just kill off a rival; sometimes it may be necessary to scare off any future ones. In that case, the violence might need to be ratcheted up, turned up a notch, made more lurid and gory, to drive home the message that here be dragons: this is dangerous territory, you would do best to stay out, to ‘tread lightly.’

Those who oppose the illegal trade–the DEA and Hank Schrader for instance–are ruthless themselves; they will skirt constitutional limitations on police power if need be. Promotions and careers hinge on it; quotas are in place; reputations rest on it. Nothing will be allowed to get in the way of these imperatives. Municipal budgets might shrink; city services might decline; but funding for combating the ‘scourge’ of drugs must maintain an upward trajectory.   The meth-heads Breaking Bad sometimes let us glimpse in its early seasons have few avenues for treatment available to them; the war has turned them into criminals, not patients.  And there’s no money for them anyway; if drugs are going to be ‘fought’ it will happen via the handcuff, the gun, the arrest, not the counselor and the clinic.

Breaking Bad, like The Wire, is not just a complicated morality tale: it is a damning indictment of the war on drugs.

Note: In a future post, I will take a closer look at The Wire. Much has been written already about its positioning within the anti-war-on-drugs debate, but I hope there is still something to be said there.

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