Breaking Bad: Are Meth Labs Justified in Dry Counties?

A new paper from Fernandez, Gohmann and Pinkston shows that counties in Kentucky that forbid alcohol have more meth labs than otherwise similar counties. I like the research but in truth any paper with both Breaking Bad and Justified references is a winner in my book.

Abstract: This paper examines the influence of local alcohol prohibition on the prevalence of methamphetamine labs. Using multiple sources of data for counties in Kentucky, we compare various measures of meth manufacturing in wet, moist, and dry counties. Our preferred estimates address the endogeneity of local alcohol policies by using as instrumental variables data on religious affiliations in the 1930s, when most local-option votes took place. Alcohol prohibition status is influenced by the percentage of the population that is Baptist, consistent with the “bootleggers and Baptists” model. Our results suggest that the number of meth lab seizures in Kentucky would decrease by 24.4 percent if all counties became wet.

The authors suggest that alcohol users who buy alcohol in places where it is banned become acculturated and familiar with illegal networks making it easier for them to buy meth. In a reverse of the usual story, alcohol prohibition becomes the gateway to other illegal activities.

In my interpretation, however, the association of meth labs and alcohol prohibition is due more to supply side factors than demand side factors. In particular, a long history of moonshine production in dry Kentucky counties leads to an accumulation of knowledge about where to hide the labs, how to evade the law and who to bribe. In this version of the theory, lifting alcohol prohibition doesn’t necessarily reduce meth production because the knowledge and the networks remain in place.

A modified version of the theory can combine demand and supply factors. If there are economies of scope between alcohol production and meth production (such as bribes to local police) then a reduction in the demand for moonshine will raise the costs of producing meth.

Understanding which of these theories holds would make an important contribution to the industrial organization of illegal goods and would also have implications for how best to combat illegal good production.


If your supply side argument is correct, then learning where to hide the meth labs, who to bribe, and how to avoid the law should be accumulated over time in wet counties even though it is already known in dry counties due to moonshine. Over time they should converge.

Not necessarily. There are bound to be some people who get caught up in the black market liquor business who would otherwise never be introduced.

It's like the college student who can buy weed from a pot shop in Denver instead of having to meet his sketchy drug dealer friend in an alleyway.

On the margins, legalization of soft drugs could reduce the interactions between soft drug users and hard drug dealers.

Agree with Cooper. But this also means that the knowledge would dwindle in the newly wet counties. In short, there are a lot of people on both the supply and demand side who might be willing to take two smaller steps down an illegal road, but less likely to take one bigger leap down that same road.

I have a home on the coast in the low country. Many of the laborers (including skilled construction laborers) come from the inland rural counties, commuting to the coast daily. Meth use among them is epidemic, and meth labs are more numerous than bars. It's true that many counties in the area have been dry since prohibition, but most have relaxed the restrictions (through the local option) and alcohol is now as available as anywhere. But that hasn't diminished meth production or consumption. Meth inland and cocaine on the coast. My observation is that the former is due to supply side factors, and the latter is due to demand side factors. Maybe it's the wealth effect.

Meth--if that's speed--is also common in SE Asia among ignorant manual laborers and truck drivers. They also like heavily caffeinated drinks here. One of the co-founders of "Red Bull" was a Thai (the other more famous public face was an Austrian). Here in the Philippines, "Cobra" energy drink is popular. In Thailand a popular drug like speed is a red plant that even old ladies chew, makes you high, and has long term health consequences. Then again, in the tropics "old age" is 65 years old (visit any cemetery and you'll notice how young the people died, by western standards, pace Japan).

Meth use among them is epidemic, and meth labs are more numerous than bars

Let go of everyone's leg.

Counties that need legal marijuana.

There are places in US where alcohol is forbidden? loool Thats crazy...

One of the major themes of southern conservatives in the United States is their support for Big Government in the form of government-enforced morality standards.

I get that "Breaking Bad" was very dramatic and it made you care about the story and the characters, and its use of formal techniques was entertaining (though a bit over-the-top and heavy-handed), but I don't really get why anybody takes it seriously as social/political commentary, particularly on America's drug issues. It seems way more out of place when referenced by an academic paper about drugs than would, say, "The Wire".

NZ, Others,

I loved Breaking Bad. However, it was almost pure fiction. For a much more serious take on the Meth epidemic, see "Winter's Bone" ( The film gets a 7.2 (out of 10) and has an excellent performance by a (pre-fame) Jennifer Lawrence.

Runny noses vs. drug labs in the Ozarks? We need more runny noses.

I'll check out that movie.

I have a theory that all the TV shows/movies I don't like ultimately suffer from the same problem: they're trying to do two irreconcilable things at once. "Breaking Bad" was trying to make some comment about our actual world in reality, but at the same time it wanted to pretend that (among other things) meth heads would pay more for some boutique blue meth as if they're hipsters sipping craft beer. It also was very heavy-handed and over-the-top with the cinematic--almost theatrical--formalism (as I've said) while trying to be a gritty realistic drama.

I enjoyed watching "Breaking Bad" once through, but it didn't do enough for me to want to ever watch it again or think that highly of it.

"The Wire", on the other hand, I'd be willing to buy the DVD box set just so I could watch it over and over again.

Winter's Bone - What a role model for tough young women growing up in adversity. Probably some hundreds of thousands of young American women in similar communities would do well to watch that movie.


"What a role model for tough young women growing up in adversity. Probably some hundreds of thousands of young American women in similar communities would do well to watch that movie."


@Observer: Oops, my comment above was meant to stand on its own, not as a reply to you.

To be fair, at least they are limited to the county level.

"One of the major themes of southern conservatives in the United States is their support for Big Government in the form of government-enforced morality standards. "

Yes, those conservatives like Al and Tipper Gore:

Who were from Tennessee and advocated a typical 'think about the children' moralism. Al Gore didn't become the Senator from TN by ignoring his constituents.

Tipper Gore created this project. It's not the same as Al Gore reluctantly voting for something his constituents are pressing for.

So, either they really believed in it, or it was cynical attempt to manipulate voters. And if you believe the latter, then wouldn't this also be the most obvious explanation for Gore's environmentalism?

JWatts scratches the surface of one of the big points relevant to this post, which is that federal drug prohibition was dreamed up and enacted by Progressive Democrats 100 years ago. This isn't some case of "Well, the parties switched sides since then." Progressive Dems have always been big supporters of drug prohibition, even through today. Check out Joe Biden's list of accomplishments in the drug war (among them, creating the office of the drug czar and beefing up civil asset forfeiture into the monstrosity it is today). Check out Obama's first AG appointee Eric Holder's record on drugs (he was a bigger hawk than anyone during the Bush or Clinton administrations). Even Michelle Obama's war on junk food used the same tactics and themes as drug warrioring.

That sort of moralism was not local to the ambo of the Southern Baptist Convention. The big promoter thereof prior to 1981 was Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television. Mrs Charren was the sort of person who might have manned the phone banks for your local public television station, did not talk in syrupy Baptist idiom, and made the advertisers of scuzzy breakfast cereal her targets. People forget how officious the consumers' movement was, once upon a time. Mrs. Gore and her confederates just wanted warning labels on Twisted Sister records (which likely did no damn good).

One of the minor themes of liberals of all stripes in the United States is their fanciful use of the term 'big government' to describe morals regulation in a locality with 20,000 people in it.

I define "big government" as anyone I can't tell to f-off when they show up on my door step to tell me to stop being a left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographer.

Or force you photograph a straight wedding against your will?


"One of the major themes of southern conservatives in the United States is their support for Big Government in the form of government-enforced morality standards"

Judging from the map in the Huffington Post, they are right.

Learn from Mississippi.


In the U.S. we have (used to have) this odd notion of "democracy". In a "democracy", the voters get to decide things like the legality of alcohol sales. From the United States Constitution (21st Amendment).

Section 1 - The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2 - The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3.- This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.

Also cigarettes carry huge taxes.

Unless it was a reference to the TV show (Harlan County is moist), the word "justified" in the title is dumb. Spend some time in Appalachia, bub.

This is typical (Libertarian) nonsense. The solution to getting rid of Meth labs is.... Wait for it... To get rid of Meth labs.

How can this be done? With some rudimentary knowledge of chemistry. Meth labs exist only because a critical raw material (ephedrine) is available, making possible an easy one step synthesis. Note that the fancy lab shown toward the end of Breaking Bad did not use the one step process (which is why the parties were stealing Methylamine and making Phenylacetone).

How to get rid of ephedrine? Don't let drug stores sell it in bulk to Meth lab operators.

For some real insight on this subject, See "The Methiest States In The U.S." (

Kentucky has 919 Meth labs. Mississippi has 5. Oregon has 9. That's a 99% reduction, not a 25% reduction.

Two very basic points here. First, anti-Libertarian methods work better than Libertarian approaches. Second, Mississippi is a leader in practical approaches. Note that Mississippi is also a leader in vaccinating school age children for MMR (with an anti-Libertarian approach). Note that Mississippi is not the leader, but very close to the top.

Quote from the Huffington Post

"Oregon and Mississippi have figured out how to curb these accidents by making the key meth ingredient pseudoephedrine prescription-only. Other states keep the common cold medicine behind the counter under a 2006 federal law, but when Oregon and Mississippi implemented prescription legislation, meth lab incidents immediately plummeted. Dozens of other states have tried to follow their lead, but the pharmaceutical industry isn't having it. "

I agree. Production will occur where it is cheapest to do so.

Steve M,

A nationwide ban on ephedrine (sometimes pseudo-ephedrine) won't stop Meth use in the USA. Meth will be smuggled into the U.S. from abroad (typically Mexico). However, a ban on ephedrine will effectively stop domestic production of Meth, which will both reduce Meth use (producers consume their own product), and eliminate the very large problems associated with Meth labs. Of course, prices will rise (somewhat) also reducing use.

Typical story. The police raiding Meth labs used to bring just police cars and handcuffs. Now they bring CPS as well. Why? To take care of the small children after the mothers are arrested.

Learn from Mississippi.

Having pharmaceutical companies produce the meth would also eliminate the problems of meth labs. Not advocating, just saying your argument doesn't demolish the libertarian position.

Oops, should have said "allowing pharmaceutical companies to produce meth." to be consistently libertarian.

Steve M,

"Letting pharmaceutical companies produce (and sell) the meth would also eliminate the problems of meth labs"

Very true. Somewhat like the Chinese experiment with Opium. Didn't end well.

They tried legal. They tried illegal. Nothing worked. Its largely cultural. Seems every culture has its drug of choice. The U.S. being the great melting pot of drugs along with cultures.

Define "well". Value is subjective.

Steve M,

They tried illegal and Mao. Worked rather well. I prefer illegal and no Mao. Not a big fan of Mao. Tastes differ. Lee Kuan Yew is (was) more to my liking. Tastes differ.

Actually, the original speed manufactured by the pharmaceutical companies in the 50s and 60s was much more benign than the stuff manufactured illegally. Better to bring that back and have people abuse speed pills than smoking meth.

In the conclusion to Frank Dikotter's "Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China" he states that the communist party had eliminated all illegal substances by 1952. Earlier in the book he argues that opium/opiate usage specifically had declined on its own throughout the 1930's and 1940's. The basic thesis of the book is that the demand side of drug use is most important. Government policies to suppress drug use and trade are ineffective or harmful.

At least with legal production and sales, you can give a warning at the time of every sale, and refer them to addictions services at every sale.

From further reading it seems that Mao ended opium use by imprisoning/executing dealers and applying intense cult style social pressure on addicts to end their habit. I am arguing it was the end of demand that stopped the trade not interdiction.

Steve M,

"From further reading it seems that Mao ended opium use by imprisoning/executing dealers and applying intense cult style social pressure on addicts to end their habit."

Firing squads are a supply control mechanism, not a tool for demand reduction.

just curious, are you advocating firing squads? I am advocating social pressure, though maybe not to the degree of Mao. Hard to that on a country wide scale without threat of death for social disobedience.

Yes, let's make the Mexican Drug War and its spillover effects to the USA even worse?

So why do we want to put hardworking American meth lab operators out of business and shift operations overseas, increasing America's trade deficit and enriching foreign drug lords?


Just replace the Americans operating these labs with illegals and they will become places of worship (by Libertarians)

Doesn't sound right; if there's a demand for a drug the drug makers will import the raw materials to make it (recall Breaking Bad and the German multinational). I think there are cultural factors at play. Meth is a poor unfit white man's drug, and Oregon has fit white men while Miss has black men, while Kentucky has unfit white men (that's my thesis).


The key raw material for producing Meth Breaking Bad style, is phenylacetone (not methylamine as shown on TV). You can't (legally) import phenylacetone into the U.S. You could smuggle it in. However, backyard Meth labs couldn't use it anyway (the phenylacetone process is vastly more complex). Beyond that, it is easier to smuggle Meth than phenylacetone.

To put this into perspective, no one smuggles coca leaves into the US, and then extracts cocaine from them. They smuggle the cocaine instead.

As for

"Meth is a poor unfit white man’s drug, and Oregon has fit white men while Miss has black men, while Kentucky has unfit white men (that’s my thesis)"

Facts are a problem... See "Oregon's War on Methamphetamine" ( Quotes

"So far, the war has had mixed results. Local meth labs have been virtually eliminated, the drug’s purity is down and its price is up, but meth supplied by Mexican drug cartels has replaced local sources, and its use continues."

"The move in where meth is manufactured was a totally predictable consequence of the laws Oregon passed in 2005," says Bovett, who has been invited to speak at the first international meth conference this fall in Prague. "The reason we passed the legislation was not to get rid of meth. It was to get rid of meth labs. We knocked them out and became an international model."

"If Oregon is now a model of meth enforcement, it may be because of its unfortunate past."

"Meth is an ongoing problem in Oregon, but we’ve made substantial progress," "meth caucus" member Macpherson told The Bulletin. "In calendar year 2004, about 450 home meth labs were busted in Oregon. In 2005, we passed the ban on over-the-counter sale of [meth’s] raw ingredients, effective July 2006. In calendar year 2007, the number of labs busted in Oregon was 18, and nearly all of those were old dump sites."

450 to 9? Versus a 25% reduction? So much for "Oregon has fit white men while Miss has black men".

As I wrote in a very different context

"The bottom line is that focusing on .... ........ is yet another example of “free market” absolutism and libertarian idolatry"

The original context was "the Jones Act". However, substitute "dry counties" and the point is the same.

when it is legal to grow your own pot, you have to really love that meth to risk a lab

Given the physical condition of meth users, it's a reasonable wager that they really do love that absent aversive sanctions.

We now know that choice of drugs and alcohol is far more complicated than "gateway" and "progression."

A late stage addict has a number of problems, and is a poor guide for early intervention.

I bet though that marijuana states will have fewer new meth users, and more that plateau with pot than was expected.

The effects are completely different and cater to different consumers. Is like saying "why should you listen rap when you have classical music". They are not substitutes.

No, the key raw material in the phenylacetone method is methyl amine, which also can't be purchased in the US without a license from the DEA. Phenylacetone is easy to synthesize from non-regulated materials via multiple routes, and isn't all that dangerous to do on a fairly large (kilogram scale). Making methyl amine isn't as trivial a matter simply because it is a gas at ambient temperature (why it is commonly sold as a solution in water or methanol). As an organic chemist, the methyl amine would be the more difficult reagent to get a hold of without drawing unwanted attention through the purchase of the required materials (things like methylchloride/bromide/iodide, or anhydrous ammonia).

However, you are right- it would be far easier to make the methamphetamine outside the US from ephedrine/pseudo-ephredrine and smuggle it in than to smuggle the any reagent that requires transformation. While I liked Breaking Bad very much, the chemistry the show was based on was somewhat shaky as a practical matter. Making optically pure methamphetamine from ephedrine/pseudo-ephedrine is going to be much easier on large scale than doing so from methyl amine and phenylacetone (and Breaking Bad never really discussed how Walter did the reductive-amination selectively to give the right enantiomer)- the only bottleneck in the former method is really the ephredrine/pseudoephedrine which is probably as easily stolen/purchased on scale as any other controlled reagent.


Alas, you (appear) to have taken Breaking Bad a bit too seriously. The producers of the show consulted with real chemists to make the story line sound plausible. However, they altered key facts so that no one could actually learn anything about making meth from the show.

Methylamine is a large scale industrial chemical. Production was 115,000 tons in 2005 (Wikipedia). It has many uses. From Wikipedia

"Representative commercially significant chemicals produced from methylamine include the pharmaceuticals ephedrine and theophylline, the pesticides carbofuran, carbaryl, and metham sodium, and the solvents N-methylformamide and N-methylpyrrolidone. The preparation of some surfactants and photographic developers require methylamine as a building block."

By contrast, phenylacetone is much rarer. Global production is in the 1-2,000 tons per year range. Phenylacetone is considerably harder to make and much more tightly regulated. Phenylacetone is schedule II controlled substance in the U.S. By contrast, methylamine is a List 1 precursor.

The industrial process for making methylamine (combining ammonia and methanol) requires large-scale, expensive equipment (but produces a cheap product). The lab processes (many of them) are simpler, but not nearly as cheap (per-kilo). Phenylacetone is trickier with both industrial and lab processes documented.


You are misunderstanding me- phenylacetone is easier to make illegally because of the more numerous methods of synthesis (you don't have to use DEA tracked reagents, for example- methylamine, not so easy to do from a practical point of chemistry since there are limited reagents and routes from which to make it, and those limited reagents are tracked, too. The DEA isn't stupid, after all. If one is going to use that route, methylamine is the reagent you are most going to have to acquire via theft or illegal purchase- that is the real bottleneck- the need to acquire it from a third party illegally.

All of this, of course, explains why Breaking Bad plot breaks down- the method they use isn't even as practical as acquiring ephedrine/pseudo-ephredrine and transforming that into methamphetamine.

You are just flat out wrong about phenylacetone being the harder to obtain ingredient. You wouldn't have to steal it or buy it illegally, nor would you have to steal or purchase illegally the means to make it. Only the synthesis of it would be illegal, which is irrelevant. Methylamine, however, would probably have to be stolen or purchased illegally- it isn't quite as easy to make in a lab, nor is it easy to cover your tracks in doing so- and it is more dangerous to make no matter what route you use.


Alas, no. Phenylacetone is schedule II controlled substance in the U.S. By contrast, methylamine is a List 1 precursor. That means that phenyacetone is much more tightly controlled than methylamine. To put this in (further) perspective, the precursors for phenyacetone are subject to the same regulatory regieme (List I chemicals) as methylamine itself. By contrast, the precursors for methylamine are either unregulated (methyl chloride/bromide/sulfate/etc. and/or formaldehyde) or trivially accessible (ammonia).

Let's review the production statistics. Phenylacetone (1-2,000 tons per year). Methylamine (115,000 tons per year), Formaldehyde (8.7 million tons - 1996), Ammonia (198 million tons).

It turns out that precursors are also regulated in Europe and the UK. See and Phenylacetone (called BMK in Europe) is subject to the tightest regulatory regime. Methylamine is not regulated at all.

As for "All of this, of course, explains why Breaking Bad plot breaks down- the method they use isn’t even as practical as acquiring ephedrine/pseudo-ephredrine and transforming that into methamphetamine"

The ephedrine process is easier. However, it is not scalable. Hence the shift (on the TV show and in reality) to the P2P/BMK process.

Minor clarification.

The actual conversion of ephedrine to methamphetamine is highly scalable. It's just industrial chemistry. The non-scalable part is getting the crucial raw material (ephedrine in some form). Collecting pills with smurfs will only get you so far.

Well, with dry counties there is always a bar and liquor store 5 feet over the county line. Many Mississippians live within a stones' throw of another state. Can't they just drive to Bayou La Batre or Tallulah and buy however much they want?


They can and do.

The county I'm from in KY is 50 miles from the nearest place to buy a legal beer.

Just curious. Do people buy it by the carload or do they drink moonshine? Or both, I guess.

Wow, it must be glorious. Mayne this is why America is so rich. Where I live there are a few noisy bar in every street.

No these dry counties aren't generally the rich part.

Limits to business rarely correlate with prosperity.

That map indicates some of the Methiest States are above the Baptist belt: Indiana (1,429); Illinois (801); and Ohio (634). Some of the distribution might simply reflect central location to transport the product to market. The lower/midwest and upper south, better than the deep south and upper midwest.

Of course, this doesn't answer the question of why millions of people should face a hassle buying cold medicine just because you have a burning desire to keep rednecks from getting high.

A lot of "libertarian" rhetoric ultimately boils down to "who cares about those people?"

A lot of statist rhetoric ultimately boils down to Hayek's fatal conceit.

Yes, I'm sure all "those" people surely appreciate the attention you and Peter Schaeffer want to apply to their drug habits. So tell me, are Mississippians better off than Kentuckians because their government has such a tight handle on the cold medicine supply?

Or could it be they have runnier noses and the rate of meth usage has changed not one whit?

Getting a prescription for something that was sold over the counter (without restriction) a decade ago. Yeah freedom!

The solution to the meth problem is to legalize it. We did not have anti-drug laws a century ago and we still had a prosperous nation with no mass opium dens.

If people want to kill themselves through excessive drug use, let them.

@Bob from Ohio

We had a very different culture a century ago, a culture that no one except a few commenters on this website and others wants back. Individualistic cultures like ours require stricter social control from government to replace that which is not enforced by family, reputation, and religion.

If people want to kill themselves through excessive drug use, let them.

That's a little harsh for my taste.


Try some history. Addicting drugs were legal as long as they weren't a material problem. When they became an epidemic, they were banned. Sort of like Open Borders for Sweden. Sweden had Open Borders in 1800. No one showed up. That does not mean that Sweden can have Open Borders now.


The goal is (was) to get rid of meth labs, not stop meth usage. 99% success is pretty good.

I think that is better than 25%, but math was never my strong suit.

Addicting drugs were legal as long as they weren’t a material problem.

What people forget was that in 1914, common provision meant institutional provision and care - i.e. public schools, asylums, sanitoriums, veterans' hospitals, and poorhouses. The only recourse to the labor market was being imprisoned after a fashion. Also, people had more effective control of their errant relatives than they have today. It still was not enough to contain the ill-effects of free trade in stupefacients.

@Peter Schaeffer,

Though I typically agree with what you write here, I actually spent a few years studying the history of this particular issue and your statement about the history is wrong.

Addiction was hardly understood in 1914, and while today's understanding is better, it's still not very good. What we are starting to realize however is that "addicting drugs" is a misnomer, since people's expectations of what a drug will do and how it should be used impact the likelihood of their getting addicted.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, drugs were banned for largely the same reasons they get negative attention now: a few lurid stories involving people on drugs get amped up by the news media (who love to apply the medical term "epidemic" to drug use, by the way--as if drug-taking just happens to people without their agency) and drive the public into a prohibitionist frenzy. That's purely on the local scale of things, of course; on the national scale, drugs were always prohibited--one by one--in order to give the US an excuse to intervene all over the world. If Steve Sailer had been writing in the 1900s and 1910s, he'd have called it WWD.

@Jason Bayz:

The best combination is cultural restrictiveness coupled with legal permissiveness. The worst combination is the opposite, which is what we have now.


"In the late 19th and early 20th century, drugs were banned for largely the same reasons they get negative attention now: a few lurid stories involving people on drugs get amped up by the news media (who love to apply the medical term “epidemic” to drug use, by the way–as if drug-taking just happens to people without their agency) and drive the public into a prohibitionist frenzy."

it is easy to argue that the early 20th century drug laws were a quasi-hysterical overreaction to what were (then) minor problems. However, let me offer two counter-perspectives. The first is obvious, China let addiction spiral out of control (with the "help" of the British, French, and yes, Americans). Eventually, it took the savagery of a communist revolution and the violence of the post-1948 period to restore sobriety to China (end mass addiction).

Whatever the evils of the Harrison Act, America was spared that fate. Yes, the differences between early 20th century China and America went far beyond the opium trade. However, America addressed a potentially serious problem and China failed to.

The second point is related. In my opinion, sensible nations address problems before they reach devastating proportions (and embedded special interests make the fixes impossible). You can blame it on the Yellow Press (with some reason). However, America of 1900 was a country where minor problems got maximum attention, helping to ensure that they stayed minor. Indeed, I would argue that is how a sensible country works. Minor problems, get unreasonable attention, that helps to make sure they stay minor.

Now we have gigantic problems and no one even talks about them. The list is long and I won't bore you with it. However, let me use one (deliberately) unrelated example. Historically, the U.S. jealously guarded its foreign trade. Imports were regarded as a threat, and exports were treated as an opportunity. That makes sense. No one (or no nation) gets rich by spending money (imports). Earning money (exports) are a different matter.

As a consequence, great attention was given to the trade balance and the (related) balance of payments. Even minor deviations from balance, were treated as a grave threat to the nation and aggressive steps were taken to address these imbalances. Now we have massive trade deficits, year after year, and no one notices. Media attention is near zero in spite of the vast negative consequences of these deficits.

Which America would you choose, the yellow journalism of 1900 or blindness in the face of ruin we have now?

I looked for the foreign policy aspects of the opium laws and the Harrison Act. They don't appear to have been paramount. One source asserted that the U.S. moved to ban opium to differentiate the U.S. from the much-hated British (in China). Sounds like a reasonable policy.


"The best combination is cultural restrictiveness coupled with legal permissiveness"

I would be the first to argue the virtues of "cultural restrictiveness"... At least the kind America used to have. The famous quote from Alexis de Tocqueville

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

is false (he never said it). However, it is pretty clear that he believed it and was broadly correct. The cultural restrictiveness of the U.S. until the 1960s was profound... and generally salutory.

However, where in the world can you find "cultural restrictiveness coupled with legal permissiveness" actually working today? The successful states of Asia have plenty of "cultural restrictiveness". They also have plenty of "legal restrictiveness".

And what's wrong with that?

Should we really design society around the lowest common denominator?

Even if we didn't care about the meth heads there are other people involved. How about the young children who get horribly burned when meth labs blow up. How about the children who get neglected because their parents are high on meth?

And how about the welfare system, which has to take care of these people. I understand libertarians want to get rid of that but that's not going to happen. And if you say the parents deserve no state help what about the children?

What should be done about the lowest common denominators is a humane eugenics program to assure that there are fewer of them in the next generation.


Worrying about ordinary folks and their children. How lame and old-fashioned. Libertarianism is about making society perfect for the 0.1% The rest of humanity can just take their food stamps and stop whining.

Hi Peter,

As a longtime Kentucky resident until earlier this year, Kentucky does have laws regarding restriction of purchase of OTC drugs used in production of meth. It isn't sold in bulk to meth operators, at least not in a legal sense.


I've not read the study, but I've driven around Kentucky. Dry counties are sparsely populated, moist counties are in rural areas with one or more moderate-sized cities that sell alcohol, and wet counties are where most people live. Meth labs are toxic, odorous operations that are best concealed where few people live. Meth labs will be in dry counties.

Also, the demand-driven substitution effect appears over-determined. The easiest way to recognize a dry county is that there is a liquor store on the highway into the county. Given the loss of rural grocery stores, it might be easier to drive 25 miles to get a couple of pints of whiskey than to get fresh produce.

To agree with PD Shaw, this is likely to be about enforcement. Dry counties are more likely to be rural. Not just rural but really rural. Lots of places to hide a lab.

Unless they account for the thinness of policemen on the ground it doesn't mean much.

They made no effort to account for much of anything. It was one step above a bivariate analysis.




Do you mean apart from the propensity score matching?

It really annoys me when people who obviously didn't read the paper confuse others by making up stuff. Art Deco obviously didn't read the paper. The authors controlled for county income, pop density, access to highways, poverty, blacks and more. Plus they did a propensity score analysis and an IV. Quite legitimate to argue that this isn't enough or is problematic but to say the authors made no effort to account for much of anything is flat out wrong and insulting to the authors and to the readers of this comment section.

It really annoys me when people who obviously didn’t read the paper confuse others by making up stuff. Art Deco obviously didn’t read the paper. The authors controlled for county income, pop density, access to highways, poverty, blacks and more.

I looked at their data tables. Which ones indicate any such controls?


Friends from Arkansas tell me you need about 1 square mile to operate a meth lab without everyone knowing it (via the odor).

"Dry counties are more likely to be rural. Not just rural but really rural. Lots of places to hide a lab."


For an earlier in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see James McMurty, Choctaw Bingo:
Uncle Slayton's got his Texan pride
Back in the thickets with his Asian bride
He's got a Airstream trailer and a Holstein cow
He still makes whiskey 'cause he still knows how
Sells his hardwood timber to the chipping mill
Cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell
He cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell
You know he likes that money, he don't mind the smell
(99% chance the blog software WRECKS the formatting of this post)

It really helps you shine all night...

What is this conspiracy. I finished Breaking Bad like 2 days ago and now Alex makes post about it straight after.

Or maybe counties that are really bad places to live (poor, hopeless, remote etc) saw more drunkenness, and therefore were more likely to try and fix the problem by banning alcohol. These places are more likely to see meth use and production as well.

" In a reverse of the usual story, alcohol prohibition becomes the gateway to other illegal activities."

i think that is actually exactly the usual story.

Northern Arkansas--no stranger to meth--has gradually been going wet, county by county, over the past decade or so. An empirical study, instead of one using ~85 year old data as an instrumental variable, could be quite instructive here.

If you live in a dry county, it can be no more than a couple hours drive (at most) to a wet county. There'd be no need to "acculturate with illegal networks"'d just need to drive to a wet county liquor store and hope you don't get pulled over on the way home.

I think there is a major flaw in considering this an effect of supply-side knowledge and experience of "how to do things illegally" because a county is dry. Transportation is no longer an issue as it was prior to and in to the 1950's. Thunder Road is no longer with us. Widely available cheap transportation effectively nullified the dry laws. I think such laws only remain as a cultural sticky NIMBY. While it is inconvenient to have to drive across the county line to buy alcohol, it is only a minor inconvenience.

I would be more inclined to think of a transfer of demand from one good to another as a result of relative availability (the aforementioned minor inconvenience). More research through historical data as counties have dropped dry laws could indeed be interesting.

History also loudly tells me, at least, that trying to control all these intoxicants by making them illegal is a fool's errand. I'm glad that some sense has finally entered the political arena when it comes to marijuana. At least some states now have tax revenues as a result of these sales. I would be extremely interested in seeing longitudinal work done on the use of other, still illegal drugs where pot is now legal.

If my mother's tales of her visits to relatives in East Tennessee ca. 1938 are accurate about the general practice there, the effect of prohibition by local option at that time was to regulate public manners regarding alcohol and regulate people's habits. Women did not drink. Men drank, but in infrequent group bacchanals which their wives affected to ignore. There were enough paved roads and automobile ownership was prevalent enough that you could transport liquor. The thing is, it was a much more impecunious world (people did not have wads of discretionary income) and one where a shame culture could still contain alcohol-consumption in a society steeped in Scotch-Irish Calvinism.

The most likely effect of driving across the county line might be to encourage whiskey or other hard liquor sales against beer.

The "legal" prohibition might be overstated though. Some dry counties in Kentucky allow alcohol sales under special circumstances, such as at restaurants, golf courses or wineries. On the other hand, I live in Illinois and I believe some rural counties are functionally dry without legal prohibition just from the lack of retail alcohol establishments. There may be cultural aspects to this, but rural retail is not what it once was.

"I think such laws only remain as a cultural sticky NIMBY."

The rate at which these laws are disappearing makes me think this is the major reason they still exist.

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