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.


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