Let's make one thing crystal clear: Walter White's blue methamphetamine is not chemically superior to what Utah law enforcement are finding on the streets.
If you haven't watched AMC's "Breaking Bad," here's a spoiler-free synopsis: An anti-hero chemistry whiz concocts a recipe that is almost 100 percent pure. The Albuquerque, N.M., drug market is forever changed. Drama ensues.
In truth, says Utah Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Sue Thomas, White would find it almost impossible to improve on today's crystal meth, the bulk of which originates in Mexican "super labs."
"They have perfected meth," Thomas says. "They make a great product, and it's not blue."
The distinctive turquoise hue of White's meth has no basis in science pure meth is clear but it has inspired copycat attempts. The Unified Police Department found several ounces of "premium" blue methamphetamine in Riverton during an April 2010 bust. State crime lab tests revealed that the coloring was due to food dye, not psychoactive properties.
But DEA agents say the show's cooking scenes are fairly accurate. Although they weren't aware of any former high school chemistry teachers who took up the trade, a chemist who cooked in Kansas City, Mo., was once hired by a Mexican lab. White's story also evoked a comparison to George Marquardt, who used advanced chemistry knowledge to create the extremely deadly designer drug fentanyl and likely killed more than 120 addicts in the early 1990s.
There are few meth labs in the United States because the most common precursor chemical, pseudoephedrine, is tightly restricted. (That's why you have to show identification to pick up a box of Sudafed.) Today's small-time cooks are simply overmatched by the industrial Mexican operations. "They've put the mom and pop meth labs out of business," Thomas says. "The two goofballs in the trailer, they can't compete because they can't produce the volume."
Thomas says the earliest operations of White and his protege, Jesse Pinkman, are from a bygone era, when "you couldn't throw a rock and not hit a local meth lab." During that time, she says, an undercover agent in the Utah DEA office even built a reputation as a sort of regional Heisenberg (White's alter ego).
But Unified Police Department Narcotics Sgt. Evan Mallas says they've only busted one meth lab a very small one in the last three years. Even though usage is still high, he's glad that the production has been outsourced because of the danger that meth labs pose to the community and to law enforcement. At 42, he says he sometimes wonders if he'll live to see 60 because of all the time he spent around the noxious lab sites a decade ago.
Mallas hasn't seen "Breaking Bad," and there are few fans of the show in the Salt Lake City DEA office, according to an informal poll from Thomas.
"You have an office full of people who see the scourge of methamphetamine every day," she says. Thomas says she may one day add it to her Netflix queue, but that it's hard for her to imagine being entertained when she's seen firsthand a meth house in which emaciated pets and children were surrounded by human waste and either physically or emotionally absent parents.
"I've always contended the biggest victims of meth are children," Thomas says. "It rots you from the inside out, starting with your brain. You can't even take care of yourself, nevermind children. There is nothing glorious or glamorous about meth."