When the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the rest of the British press pack published a story yesterday about the TV series Breaking Bad sparking a crystal meth craze in Britain, my bullshit detectors went into overdrive.
The story had the whiff of pure, unfiltered rubbish. In fact, it's a specimen of the "double bullshit" news story: one load of bullshit used to prop up a second load of bullshit.
Firstly, there is no "shocking" rise of crystal meth use in Britain.
The articles quote the number of seizures of the drug as having risen by 400 percent in the last year. They paint a picture of drug operatives working through the night, rushing from meth den to meth den in a desperate attempt to crack down on the real life Heisenbergs. Except that the number of seizures has only risen from 61 to 252. This would be a lot if we were talking about brain seizures. But compared to the 16,825 seizures of cocaine and nearly 150,000 of cannabis during the same year, it's a drop in the ocean.
The story expressed horror that 17,000 people had used crystal meth in the last year. Yet next to the 2.6 million people using other drugs, it's negligible. It also said that Breaking Bad could be responsible for a dramatic 50 percent rise in the use of the drug in Germany. Compelling that the show is, I'm not sure it's compelling in a way that will make people actually want to take crystal meth. More likely is that the part of Germany seeing a rise in use, Bavaria, borders the Czech Republic, the biggest consumer and producer of methamphetamine in Europe.
The notion that Breaking Bad has been responsible for this tiny rise in meth use comes from Ellis Cashmore, a professor of media, culture and sport at Staffordshire University. This is what he says: "Showing the horrendous impact of crystal meth can have a boomerang effect and cause curiosity among some viewers who might think 'that must be good'… I'm not surprised following the success of Breaking Bad that we have news of a surge in the use of methamphetamine. The fact millions of people have watched the show and been entertained by it almost instantly glamourises its subject matter, whether deliberate or not."
Cashmore suggests that because its co-star Aaron Paul, who plays a meth addict, is sexy, good looking and a Hollywood A-lister, we will probably want to take meth too.
Now, I'm no professor of media, culture and sport, but to me this sounds iffy, mainly because this guy provides no evidence to back up his hunch. Are we really a bunch of automatons who blindly copy what we see on TV?
If he's onto something, why hasn't Mad Men quadrupled the number of cigarette smokers? Why aren't we all street hustlers after watching The Wire? Surely the nation is awash with sword-wielding knights after four seasons of Games of Thrones? Luckily, the human brain, after the age of about ten, doesn't work like this. Drug use is more influenced by your immediate surroundings than what you see on TV.
For the last decade, non-stop, the media has been declaring a crystal meth epidemic in the UK. For example, in 2006 the Independent published a front page declaring "Crystal Meth: Britain's Deadliest Drug Problem", despite the fact the drug was only a faint blip on police and drug use statistics and that there had been no deaths attributed to the drug that year. When a Sun journalist was asked why he was printing yet another false dawn crystal meth story in 2011, he replied that readers liked the "before and after" images of American crystal meth addicts.
Apart from its use in some gay party scenes, particularly in London, crystal meth has never caught on in Britain. Arrests and convictions for crystal meth are extremely rare in the UK. They always have been. A Freedom of Information request made in May by the Brighton Argus into the extent of crystal meth in Sussex found the number of arrests for the drug has been falling for the last five years. Last year, Sussex police arrested a jail-busting five people for crystal meth.
There is a logical reason – which has nothing to do with TV – for why crystal meth is not popular here: we have no need for it. This small, well-networked country is one of Europe's major drug distribution hubs, and we have stimulant drugs such as cocaine and MDMA coming out of our ears. It is no coincidence that crystal meth, a DIY drug, is most popular in parts of the world where stimulant drugs are scarce and expensive, such as the rural American Midwest, New Zealand and Australia.
But for some newspapers, which still presume we follow America's lead on drug trends (actually the Yanks now follow us, but that's another story), the temptation to dabble in a bit of crystal myth is too tempting to ignore.
Previously in Narcomania – Why Britain Won't Be a Drug-Taker's Paradise Any Time Soon