5 Insane Realities Of The Rural Meth Trade
We feel like we're insulting your intelligence by pointing out that Breaking Bad wasn't realistic. (You won't look cool in a pork pie hat. It's not possible.) But on the other hand, this is the world's only cultural touchstone for the meth business, and we desperately hope that you don't have, uh, hands-on experience with it.
That said, the show depicts meth use in and around the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. You might be surprised to learn that in 2014, the entire state of New Mexico only had six methamphetamine "incidents" (busts, lab explosions, etc) recorded by the DEA. Missouri had over a thousand. The meth epidemic is at its worst in the Midwest and the South.
So we sat down with a young man who got started in the meth trade as a teenager, and eventually graduated to selling heroin with the Aryan Brotherhood. He told us ...
You Can Start Young -- And Get Rich Fast
"I did right before or right at 13," says Timmy. "I was hanging out with my cousin; he just had some one day and asked if I wanted to try it ... I learned how to manufacture meth at 13. I just sorta cooked for myself until 16. Then I started working for a guy ..."
Yeah, you remember the quality of the moral decisions you were making at 13? And as you might've guessed, Timmy's mom and dad weren't exactly helicopter parents. Once he was 16, he was big enough to graduate to working as an enforcer for an older dealer. "Any time we could go and drop off ... an 8-ball to an ounce, I'd go in to make sure nobody pulled a gun on him and shit. Things like that. They were ... an average of age 27 to 30. As long as you had the drugs, they were always fairly respectful, and even moreso when you had a gun."
The gun was a benefit provided by his boss "right at 16" because "we were riding around with a lot of money and drugs." Our source recalled it was a Smith & Wesson M&P 40.
You never forget your first.
But being an armed strongman was only a side job; most of his career was spent cooking and facilitating the cooking of methamphetamine. And while it's true that lots of cooks barely make enough product to destroy their own teeth, our source was doing Walter-White-scale business. "We were getting rid of about ... 2-3 ounces a day, so $4-5k a day." Needless to say, other life options started to close off quickly. "Once I got into meth, I started skipping school a lot. School was harder in comparison."
One box of Sudafed (the pseudoephedrine source favored by meth cooks everywhere) comes out to around 3.5 grams of methamphetamine when cooked properly. This means that Timmy and his organization needed to source 20-30 boxes of Sudafed per day to keep up with demand. Fortunately, he came up with a brilliant solution to this bottleneck: lying to his customers. Reasoning that the average meth addict had already pawned their scale for more meth, he started selling half a gram or so as one gram, tying the baggies in a way to make them seem fuller. "There's a certain way to tie it and add an extra bit of weight to it. Because no one's going to pour it on the scale and waste what little bit they had."
Quite a sound understanding of applied economics for a guy who'd been skipping math class.
Our source also learned the importance of cultivating good relationships with the three or four "bulk" buyers in his area. He didn't shortchange them, because he knew that if they came to rely on his business, he'd make way more dollars per hour than if he was selling teeny amounts to a bunch of sketchy addicts. And if at this point we're making it sound like easy money, remember ...
It's Ridiculously Dangerous
We're not going to walk you through the meth-making process, for obvious reasons. But we can say that part of it involves using the lithium strips inside a battery -- which, by the way, is dangerous as shit. "The metal touching that lithium strip will explode if you hit the strip." Timmy knows this because it happened to him at least once. "Not really a large explosion, but holding it in your hands ... it'll take your digits off, no problem."
When it's not busy burning your house down or literally dissolving your fucking throat.
But it's not just the chemistry that's the dangerous part. It's your customers and peers.
Yeah, we found that Timmy was full of terrifying stories. "We were going to see this high-ranking guy, a Simon City Royal ... We pull up, and the guy walks outside with AK-47 and just starts lighting the car up. We reversed, tore out at 50 mph. One bullet hole in the hood."
Not really what most people talk about when bringing up occupational hazards.
The Simon City Royals were the big meth dealers in his area, and Timmy and his friends took quite a lot of money out from under their noses. "We took $250k out of their trade in a six-to-eight-month period ... when we used our Sudafed up, we bought from them. They had a lot of people working for them, whereas it was just us two. I still don't know if they know it was us . We were sitting at the leader's house with their chief enforcer and two other enforcers ... we were all smoking dope, and 'Yeah, somebody took such-and-such money from the gang these past six months,' and we looked at each other like, 'Oh shit.'"
Timmy was a lucky kid. The fact that he was alive to speak to us is proof of that. But right now, you're probably wondering where the hell all the cops were in this. Well ...
Rural Cops Are Overwhelmed By The Meth Epidemic
While huge police departments in cities like Baltimore or New York are, at least, large and very much in charge, rural areas often have a handful of police officers covering hundreds of miles. Half of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies have fewer than 10 officers, and three quarters have fewer than 25, and there's little-to-no standardization or communication between many departments.
"We should do this again. You guys on Twitter?"
Tiny rural departments don't have the manpower to launch The Wire-like investigations into meth rings, and governmental measures aimed at helping them fight the dealers often come up short. For example, to restrict access to pseudoephedrine, the government passed a law that required every store to log the ID of buyers and to limit how much anyone could purchase in a month. This of course required that all of those purchases be kept in a central database ... supposedly.
"Everybody said the computers are linked, which is a lie. We'd go to every Walmart, in a circle, buying Sudafed. The systems weren't linked that way. They were linked like ... say you had a CVS and a Walgreens in one town. All those pharmacies are linked. But not town-to-town; just in that town ... We'd leave 7 a.m. and come back at 10 or 11 that night with Sudafed."
Turns out it's not as complicated as you'd think.
Still, if you stay in the game long enough, the cops are going to find out. They're undermanned, not stupid. Timmy managed to get out of the meth game without getting busted and without spending any time as a basement slave of any Nazis. (Although there are Nazis coming up. Stay tuned!) His mentor was not so lucky.
"The guy I was working for ... got caught with boxes buying Sudafed, and they took him to jail. I had six trash bags full of meth ingredients and I had to bury them, because I don't trust nobody when they go to jail. I just said I didn't want to do it anymore." Plus, a few years ago, Mississippi became one of two states to make drugs like Sudafed available by prescription only, drastically restricting access for meth cooks. "And then," Timmy says, "everybody started switching to heroin."
So ... yay?
Our source's experiences mirrored a broader national trend, by the way. As police departments get better at fighting meth, users start switching to prescription painkillers, and eventually heroin as well. This is where the Nazis come in ...
The Nazi Stuff Just Sorta Happens
Remember when Breaking Bad, which had always been a somewhat grounded if intensely dark show, suddenly threw a gang of Nazis into the mix? It was a little jarring, to say the least.
Pictured: the Great Gazoo of high-end serial drama.
But the weirdest thing about that was in fact how long it took for Nazis to come into the picture. In reality, the Aryan Brotherhood -- a 20,000-member gang with a terrifying amount of power in and outside of prisons -- is heavily tied to the meth trade. It has money, influence, organization, and tight connections with foreign cartels (it's kind of inspirational how they can put their racism aside for the greater good). Compare that to a rural police department with five or six officers and a hundred miles of ground to cover. In many areas, the AB can move drugs with impunity.
You could drive around naked with "DRUGS!" spray-painted on the side; it doesn't matter if no one is around to arrest you.
"Drugs" plural is critical there. The Brotherhood makes a lot of meth, but it also sells a lot of heroin. In today's market, if you're not diversified, you're throwing money out the window. "After I quit messing with meth, I started getting into heroin more around 16. The Aryans ... did most of the heroin, I knew a guy who got me in with them. I already had my lightning bolts and swastikas before I got in."
He's saying that he got his Nazi tattoos before actually joining a Nazi gang, originally at the behest of the guy who taught him the meth trade. "I was drunk one night, and he talked me into getting a swastika tattoo on my chest. Later, I earned my lightning bolts ... I'd really rather not talk about it." Hint: The bolts mean you stabbed somebody. "If you have bolts with no color ... you assaulted someone, a black person. Filled in with red, you spilled blood."
Law enforcement officials are still trying to decipher what their "Skin Head" could possibly mean.
When he got into the Aryan Brotherhood, his preexisting tattoos got him in some trouble. Here's how he related that conversation to us:
"Are you a brother?"
"Y'know we could cut this off of you."
"No you won't."
Oddly enough, that seemed to do the trick. Timmy explained, "It was about standing up to them, not backing down."
Some Get Out; Most Don't
"I went to rehab. We had -- still have -- guys in the AB overdosing. I said, 'If I don't go to rehab, I'm going to die.' I'm still kinda cool with them; I can hang with them. If I see them, we're still fine. And I still have my lightning bolts, but I told 'em I wasn't going to die for drugs." You know, because it's good to stay in touch with your friends.
There may be stuff in life worth dying for, but this isn't it.
Otherwise, Timmy is out of both the drug and gang businesses these days. His biggest regret? "Getting a bunch of people hooked on drugs ... There's a bunch of people I've seen I got hooked ... some are dead now, some in prison. A couple got straight. I see pretty regularly the ones who ain't dead or in jail. I guess some people get sucked into that gang life, believe that bullshit about being family, and they don't want to leave it behind."
As for the Nazis he still sometimes keeps in touch with? "The AB talks about white power, but they buy all their heroin from black guys, and it was killing them. It was more just business-related -- having more connections ... Those people didn't really appeal to me as family types. I've watched too many people in those gangs go to jail, and nobody ever sees 'em or gives a shit about them."
"We care about you ... just not as much as drugs and money."
As blase as Timmy seemed about much of this, there were a few moments from his career that seemed to deeply disturb him. "There was a young guy around here, he was probably 18 at the time. I got him doing dope, and he went off with this guy to some gang member's house, didn't know it at the time ... the young boy's name is John." It turned out that John was working with the police. The Royals found out, and John was killed, his death made to look like an accident. It turns out that the AB has some experience at manufacturing car crashes.
"It wasn't really a wreck. They ran them off the road, or shined a camera in their eyes as they came around a corner, and then beat them to death when they crashed. One of the gangs ... one of their own brothers, he did something, not that serious, but they ran him off the road. His truck caught on fire and he burned to death over some bullshit."
So you want your anti-drug PSA? Simply remind yourself that this all started when his cousin asked him if he wanted to try some meth. At age 13.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Insane Things I Learned About Drugs As An Undercover Agent and 6 Realities Of Cooking Illegal Drugs (Not Seen On TV).
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