Breaking Bad Conveys the Reality of the Drug Trade Better Than U.S. Drug Policy

The end is near. This Sunday, the final season of Breaking Bad kicks off and brings our nail-biting adventure with Walt, Jesse, and Hank to a close. Spoiler alert: the drug war and the DEA’s misguided prosecutions and investigations will carry on long after Hank Schrader (Breaking Bad’s dogged DEA investigator) graces the screen for the final time.

Breaking Bad beautifully illustrates one critical aspect of the drug trade that has beguiled law enforcement for centuries, long before the DEA even existed. From Tuco in the first season to Kingpin Gustavo Fring to Walter White, the television show shows how there is a seemingly endless quantity of sophisticated suppliers and producers of illegal drugs. When one is killed, arrested, or simply leaves the industry, another emerges.

Some experts on the drug war have used the phrase "the cockroach effect" to describe what happens when law enforcement targets leaders of criminal organizations. The cockroach effect literally refers to the intended eradication of these pests — how stomping one out encourages the rest to scatter and the number of cockroaches in your line of sight multiplies. Metaphorically, it refers to the proliferation of criminal organizations and cartels — how law enforcement officials tried to target a kingpin, jail him, and disband his organization, and how two or more subsequent criminal organizations spawn from the lack of centralized leadership and intragroup conflict.

Targeting a kingpin does not mean that his organization will cease to operate. It means that someone might take his place, the organization might splinter into rival factions, or a newcomer might see a market opening and enter. Where do we see this happen? There are countless examples already in AMC’s Breaking Bad. Perhaps we can call this broad process of supplier substitution the Breaking Bad effect. The BBE, if that’s catchier.

Here is why the BBE is so important: suppliers, whether they are Mexican cartels, owners of fried chicken fast food restaurants, or nerdy high school teachers, will never stop entering the industry, despite DEA efforts to stop them. Breaking Bad illustrates this perfectly across the four-and-a-half seasons thus far: as Hank celebrates small victories when he catches leaders of drug rings, sooner or later the blue meth reappears on the streets.

Let’s hypothesize that that Hank catches Walt in the fifth season, and the legendary Heisenberg cooks his last batch of blue meth. Will Hank’s job be done? Of course not. Someone, either Jesse, Todd, an enterprising young chemist, or anyone else that can get his or her hands on methylamine, will bring high-quality meth back on the streets. The BBE will happen as long as the high incentives for drug suppliers exist.

It is here where our amateur predictions about Breaking Bad are much more realistic than U.S. drug policy predictions about real drug leaders. As the show progresses, it has trained us in four short seasons to watch the cockroaches multiply or to predict splintering factions when organizations disband. On the other hand, U.S. law enforcement has been chasing suppliers for decades, and the BBE keeps happening right underneath their nose. I do not intend to imply that U.S. law enforcement is ignorant or that they don’t understand the unintended consequences of the cockroach effect. I hope to point out that, despite this understanding, they still choose to use flawed methods to eradicate drug violence: by allocating too many resources to jailing kingpins and not noticing that U.S. drug policy needs a paradigm shift, not just more suppliers behind bars.

 The U.S. Department of the Treasury has been naming individuals to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act since 2000. This list has accrued hundreds of names of foreign cartel leaders that are active in the drug smuggling business. Yes, they have caught many of these leaders, but true to the BBE, another (or many) emerges as soon as a cartel leader is behind bars. The suppliers will continue to enter the industry, and our list of kingpins will grow longer and longer.

The Kingpin Designation Act is not a television show in its final season. It is real life, based on dangerous and powerful drug suppliers. As the BBE has shown us, U.S. law enforcement’s actions are part of a predictable pattern: a supplier make the drug available, they get caught by law enforcement, another supplier begins to make the drug available, they are targeted by law enforcement, and so on. U.S. law enforcement needs to swallow the hard pill of reality and notice that focusing on targeting leaders of criminal organizations is not going to stop the drug trade.

A television show can teach us that there will always be people willing to participate in supplying drugs — even a high school teacher. The best lesson that U.S. law enforcement could learn from Breaking Bad is this phenomenon of the BBE effect, and that their resources might be better spent in reforming policies than in targeting today’s hottest drug supplier.

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Jessie Bullock

A Stanford University M.A. Candidate, Spanish and Portuguese speaking girl, Jessie focuses her research on Latin American policy, drug policy, and agricultural policy. You can probably find her talking about Brazil with a newspaper in one hand and glass of wine in the other.

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