Academic journal article The Geographical Review

From Soda Bottles to Super Labs: An Analysis of North America's Dual Methamphetamine Production Networks

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

From Soda Bottles to Super Labs: An Analysis of North America's Dual Methamphetamine Production Networks

Article excerpt

Methamphetamine has been having a cultural moment. Largely because of the success of the recently concluded television series Breaking Bad, many Americans now feel knowledgeable about what has historically been a regional drug phenomenon. They know that methamphetamine is made in labs, that the drug's trade is influenced by the machinations of international organized crime, and that its production is dependent upon the procurement of certain chemicals that are strictly regulated. However, Breaking Bad, as well researched and written as it was, was still entertainment, designed to titillate rather than educate, and many gaps in our understanding of the drug still exist.

Methamphetamine (meth) is a schedule II substance that acts as a strong central nervous system stimulant. Initially sold over the counter for a number of indications in the 1940s, meth quickly became a popular drug of abuse, and has been a scheduled substance in the United States since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Meth is a synthetic drug, meaning that it can be produced without any organic component, and has been produced illegally in the U.S. in clandestine meth labs since the early 1960s (Rasmussen 2008; Gilbreath 2012).

There are numerous ways to produce methamphetamine, each of which relies on an array of chemicals for its various production stages. Most important of all are precursor chemicals, which are incorporated into the drug's molecular structure as a result of the production process, and can dictate the potency of the final product (Sevick 1993; Mendelson and others 2006). The precursor chemicals used in production have changed over time as the various actors involved in the drug's production have been forced to adapt to changing precursor regulation (Gilbreath 2014).

The majority of geographical analyses of methamphetamine have focused on the location of methamphetamine lab seizures. This makes sense. Lab seizures represent a moment where the normally secretive operation of the illicit methamphetamine commodity chain becomes visible. Max Lu and Jessica Burnum found lab location around Colorado Springs to be correlated with neighborhoods that have low median ages, predominantly white populations, and low levels of educational attainment (2008). Both L. Edward Wells and William Weisheit (2012) and Aaron Gilbreath (2013) found that methamphetamine labs in the United States agglomerate in space, with the presence of labs in neighboring counties being the single most significant predictor of meth-lab seizures occurring within a county. Alex Fiedler and his colleagues explored the geography of both production and abuse (via arrests) and found that methamphetamine-related arrests in North Dakota occured in more urban counties, but lab seizures were more common in rural ones (2008). Kevin Romig and Alex Fielder furthered that research with an analysis of the limited treatment options available to rural abusers of methamphetamine (2008). Each of these studies offered important insights into methamphetamine production and abuse within the United States. However, it is estimated that domestic methamphetamine production accounts for only 20 percent of the meth consumed in the United States (Fiedler and others 2008; NDIC 2011).

This paper proposes a more holistic analysis of the methamphetamine industry which supplies the drug to the United States. Rather than emphasizing solely the location of production, I deploy a production network approach as means to offer nuanced analysis of how methamphetamine reaches consumers in the United States. This perspective produces insight useful to policy makers as they seek to stem the flow of the drug in the country, as it identifies essential components of methamphetamine networks that have the potential for elimination. The study also shows the efficacy of the global production network (GPN) perspective as a tool for studying the illicit economy, and the global drug trade in particular. …

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