Breaking Bad by the Numbers: Impact of Meth Use on the U.S. Economy

The hit AMC series Breaking Bad highlights the sad but true reality of alcohol and drug abuse, portraying an industry often filled with desperate people who commit increasingly desperate acts. Unfortunately, rampant meth use in the United States not only destroys the lives of addicts and their families, but the greater U.S. economy as well.

In the beginning of the series, Walter White, a brainy but nebbish chemistry teacher at an Albuquerque, N.M., high school, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. With a pregnant wife and a son who has cerebral palsy, all he can think about is what his family will do when he’s gone.

White pairs up with a former student who has become a crystal meth dealer, and together the two begin producing and selling an especially pure form of the drug.

As White becomes more and more embroiled with law enforcement and competing dealers, he begins to lose his sense of self and reality. Every day he acts more like his alter ego “Heisenberg” to everyone, including himself.

Who knows what will become of White and his family? All we can do is hold our breath and wait for the Breaking Bad finale, which airs Sunday, Sept. 29, on AMC. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at how the show’s silent adversary, methamphetamine, is impacting our financial reality.

Breaking Bad Numbers: How Does Methamphetamine Affect the United States Financially?

Meth Use Alone Racked Up a $23.4 Billion Bill in 2005

The emotional costs of methamphetamine cannot be measured — but the economic impacts can. According to a RAND Corporation study, “The Economic Cost of Methamphetamine Use in the United States, 2005,” methamphetamine cost the United States $23.4 billion in 2005, with addiction, drug treatment, premature death and other effects factored in.

However, this figure is only an approximation; the RAND study provided an estimated range of anywhere between $16.2 and $48.3 billion in costs.

“When you look at drug use in this country, the loss to society is in the billions,” said Gregory A. Smith, M.D., executive producer of American Addict and American Addict 2. Additionally, Smith explained that because users often indulge in more than one kind of drug, methamphetamine use is often inextricably linked to other types of substance abuse.

While meth use places a serious hamper on the U.S. economy, punitive measures against users rack up additional costs, as well.

“Working at countless treatment centers in South Florida, I have witnessed first-hand the horrible impact of methamphetamine addiction on the entire United States,” said Sierra Kline, SEO coordinator at the Florida House Experience, a drug and alcohol treatment facility. “The number of drug-related [incarcerations] not only costs average Americans, but also does little to help the underlying problem of addiction.”

The War on Drugs: Higher Criminal Justice System Costs

According to the U. S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center, the annual costs of drug-related crimes in the United States is in excess of $61 billion. A 2010 National Drug Threat Study found that ice methamphetamine and crack cocaine cause a majority of drug-related crime.

Methamphetamine has also “affected folks’ increased engagement with our criminal justice system,” added Oliver McGee, an analyst and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary under Bill Clinton.

Based on RAND’s study, McGee explained that methamphetamine especially strains the U.S. criminal justice system.

“The study’s overall call for increased investments in ‘preventive measures’ clearly points out that many of the economic costs [include] criminal justice burdens,” McGee said.

According to Southeast Missouri State University, it costs approximately $30,000 to $40,000 to house one inmate per year.

Increased Costs to Tax Payers

“There is a lot of man power with the government,” noted Jorge Trevino, a partner with Trevino & Gayed, LLP. Referring to the federal government’s war on drugs, Trevino explained that a surplus of law enforcement officials is necessary to enforce the government’s laws on alcohol and drug abuse.

According to Addiction Treatment Strategies, it costs $2,000 to $3,000 for federal or state drug agents to clean up a meth lab. Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration disbursed money to clean up more than 10,000 methamphetamine labs, costing taxpayers between $20 and $30 million.

Detox and Rehabilitation Costs

Depending on where an individual goes for treatment, costs can be as “low as $10,000 to $20,000, to $60,000 to $70,000 per month per patient” Smith explained, adding that it “requires more than a month of treatment” in addition to a sober living facility for adequate treatment.

According to RAND, treatment for methamphetamine addicts cost $545 million in 2005.

Unnecessary Medical Costs From Methamphetamine Use

RAND also noted $351 million in methamphetamine-related medical costs, as well as $61 million used, in part, to treat injured victims and remove bodies from explosions at meth labs.

Lost Productivity

According to RAND, in 2005, $687 million was lost in productivity due to methamphetamine use.

Why? “Methamphetamine shifts our moods and causes mood swings, resulting in various thinking disorders, like anxiety, paranoia, even depression.” McGee explained. “[It] only escalates such cranial-abdominal thinking disorders. This has a substantial and direct impact on … affected folks’ overall productivity and personal economics.”

While most modern Hollywood productions tend to glamorize drug use in America, Breaking Bad stands out not only for its incredibly talented crew of writers and actors, but also for its harshly realistic portrayal of what meth addiction does to people. We may be saying goodby to the series forever, but we have a long way to go before the same can be said of meth use and its detrimental effect on our economy.