f all American states were personified as drug dealers, ushered into
a holding cell, told to stand in a Usual Suspects-style line-up, then
instructed to empty their pockets, what illicit items would spill forth and
from whom? Would Mr. Florida produce enough cocaine to be crowned
the Scarface of the group? Would Mr. New Mexico's massive meth stash
secure his status as a real-life Walter White
? Or might there be drug barons
in the room whose hauls, pound for pound, far surpass their reputations?
Perhaps an effeminate Pablo Escobar hiding in the guise of Ms. Missouri?
The United States is unequivocally the largest consumer of illegal drugs on the planet.
This was the somewhat bizarre question that drifted into my mind a month
ago while re-watching an episode of Breaking Bad
- the addictive story of
a high school science teacher, Walter White, turned super meth cook. I
already knew that the U.S. is unequivocally the largest consumer of illegal
drugs on the planet
(accounting for only 5% of the world's population, but
a massive 25% of its demand for narcotics1
), but I wanted a much more
detailed picture of the American drug landscape. I wanted to see it as it exists right now, across every state and all 3,000 counties.
I wanted to know which state is the most awash with amphetamines
and heaving with heroin. And where can't you find a brick of cannabis no
matter how hard you try?
Clearly there's no way to know the precise amount of each drug present
in each state without some kind of omniscient, omnipresent drug-sniffing dog, and the DEA doesn't have one yet, so a less direct
approach would be required. I decided to use reported seizures of narcotics to
It took 1,500 media outlets 13 months to report on 5,000 drug busts.
It took roughly 1,500 different media outlets, from ABC News to the Zanesville Times Recorder, a year and a month to report 5,000 drug busts.
This, of course, is only a fraction of the total number of seizures made by the DEA, FBI, U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Border Patrol on a yearly
basis, but nevertheless, it gives a fresh perspective on American's war on drugs. Every dot on the map above is a drug bust that was big enough
to make the news
and it doesn't take more than a second to see which illicit substance secured the most column inches over the 58 weeks. The
constellation of green dots are interceptions of cannabis: America's favorite drug and easily its more frequently seized.
70.5% of the 5,000 most
recent busts involved cannabis, with the remaining 29.5% going to cocaine (13%), heroin (10%) and meth (6%). DEA drug seizure stats confirm that, of
the 'big four', cannabis is far and away the most seized drug (780,000 lbs in 2012), followed by cocaine (79,000 lbs)4
Cannibis is the most seized drug, coming in at 780,000lbs in 2012
Meth and heroin take third and
fourth places respectively (5,400 lbs and 2,400 lbs), reversed in comparison to their volume of media reports.
It's no mystery why cannabis swamps the map above.
Many more people consume it than the other three drugs. According to the 2011 World Drug
Report, in 2009 between 2.8% and 4.5% of the world population aged 15-64, which is 125-203 million people, used cannabis at least once in the
. In North America, the figure was more than double that, at 11%7
. Supply therefore strives to meet demand and the result is absolutely
vast quantities of marijuana circulating throughout the U.S., with about half of it originating in Mexico and the other half being home grown, or coming from Canada or Jamaica8
In terms of the geographical distribution of the 5,000 most recent seizures, the map above gives us a rough indication, with many more blue dots
(cocaine) and red dots (heroin) visible in the east of the country, while the west (i.e. California) accounts for a hefty sprinkle of yellow meth dots.
To get a clearer idea we need to drill down into the numbers a bit more.
As you'd expect, the ten states with the most seizures of all four drug types roughly mirror the ten most populated states in the U.S., except for
Arizona, which ranks 3rd for seizures, thanks to its shared border with Mexico, but 15th for population size. Of the 5,000 most recent busts in the
news, four states stood out as being pretty low-level traffickers in our Usual Suspects line-up - practically street hoodlums, in fact - with fewer than
ten each: Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Having said that, Mr. North Dakota is looking decidedly shifty. It's time for a full body pat
Pulling out the 10,000 most recently reported marijuana busts adds a lot more density to the cannabis constellation. The map on the left pin-points
each one and again, with marijuana use being so ubiquitous, the densest spots on the map tend to also be the most populated. California had the most
weed busts, with 1,326 of the most recent 10,000, followed by Texas (1,061), Arizona (725), Florida (628) and New York (457). The map on the right is
more illuminating because it shows each state shaded by its number of cannabis busts per capita. This is where shifty-looking Mr. North Dakota knows
the game is up and makes a futile dash for the holding cell door, because the Peace Garden State - with only 670,000 residents - has the most cannabis
busts per 100K people of any state, at a whopping 67.9. Arkansas is in second place at 24.8 and Nebraska in third, at a similar 24.6.
Cannabis Busts Per 100K People - The Top 20
Cannabis Busts Per 100K People - The Bottom 5
North Dakota, in the number one spot, shares a wide border with Canada, which gives Canadian drug organizations in Vancouver and Manitoba the
opportunity to smuggle cannabis into the U.S.
, with most of the drug destined for areas outside of North Dakota. Arkansas' presence in the top three
could be for a slightly different reason however, because while Mexican marijuana is rife in Arkansas, a warm climate, an abundance of rural land and
a long growing season give cultivators the chance to grow cannabis domestically as well, mostly in the east and northwest of the state.
North Dakota takes the cake when it comes to cannibis busts per capita.
While the rankings are quite interesting, it's the sheer volume of cannabis seizures that is a cause for concern.
of concern depends on
whether you feel marijuana laws are necessary or not. There's a national debate raging at the moment on the subject and just last week
more evidence came in to suggest that law enforcement, at least in New York City, is shifting its focus away from making arrests for the possession
of small amounts of marijuana. Weed-related arrests are set to drop 20% in 2013
, and in 2012 they'd already dropped 22 percent compared to the
previous year, from 52,220 to 40,6619
. Of course, the authorities are unlikely to adopt a more lenient position any time soon in regard to hauls that
make the news due to their unusual size, like the 1,700lbs of marijuana police discovered in a U-Haul truck this May in Irving, Texas10
What's for certain is that while marijuana laws are on the verge of an evolution of sorts
, the restrictions on the other three drugs I'm looking at are as
tight as ever. Let's take a stroll down the line-up to see which of our states has the most white powder under his nails.
Texas had 70% as many reported cocaine seizures as the rest of the top five states combined.
Cocaine is America's second most frequently seized drug and the DEA intercepted almost 80,000 lbs of it in 2012. It took American media outlets
573 days to report 1,000 coke seizures around the country
and on the map above-left, you can see every single one of them. Looking at the total
number of busts for each state, I noticed that Texas, with 207, accounted for about 20% of the 1,000 most recent, putting it firmly in the number one
spot. In fact, Texas had 70% as many reported cocaine seizures as the rest of the top five states combined (California - 102, Florida - 63, Arizona - 62,
New York - 61). The most obvious reason is because of its proximity to, and shared border with, Mexico. In 2010, 95 percent of all cocaine entering
the United States came from south of the border,11 up from 77% in 200312
. North Texas also acts as a distribution and transshipment area for cocaine
that is moved via passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers to destinations in the Midwestern, Northern and Eastern U.S.13
So, Texas is the big daddy of cocaine busts, but which of our fifty anthropomorphized states gets another line on their rap sheet
for having the most coke busts relative to population size?
Cocaine Busts Per 100K People - The Top 20
Cocaine Busts Per 100K People - The Bottom 5
The Green Mountain State was one of the top ten states for drug-use in several categories, including cocaine use among persons age 12 and older.
Arizona and Texas together account for the vast majority of the border between the U.S. and Mexico
, so it stands to reason that they are, both
in total seizures reported and seizures reported per capita, the top two states for cocaine busts. But what about Vermont in spot number three?
Vermont produces more maple syrup than any other state14
, but cocaine? Well, its ranking will certainly have something to do with the fact that it's
the 2nd least populous state in America, which makes every bust stand out, but in 2009-2010, the Green Mountain State was one of the top ten for
rates of drug-use in several categories
, including past-year cocaine use among persons age 12 or older and past-year cocaine use among young
adults age 18-2515
- so there is clearly a demand for cocaine in Vermont. There's also a trafficking route for it: Vermont has a long and sparsely
populated border with Canada and a lot of cocaine enters the U.S. through it, with much of the drug coming from Montreal16
Five states didn't have any of the 1,000 most recent cocaine interdictions featured in the news: Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana and Mr. Most Weed
Busts Per Capita: North Dakota. Would these same states have clean hands when it came to heroin busts within their borders?
Delaware ranked first for per capita heroin seizures, at 3.56 per 100k people.
Dakota and Iowa again kept their hands clean, as did Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming. They all have small enough populations
and are far enough from the Mexican border to avoid having big heroin busts hit the newstands. The same cannot be said for Delaware, which
ranked first for per capita heroin seizures (3.56 per 100K people)
. Delware is only the 45th most populous state, so perhaps this is why it topped the
heroin rankings. But a different story emerges when its close proximity to other states with high totals of heroin busts is examined. Pennsylvania,
for instance, had the most heroin busts of any state, with 134 of the most recent 1,000, more than California and New York combined, whose
populations are 4.5 times larger than Pennsylvania's. New Jersey ranked second for the most heroin seizures (101) and New York came in third
and all three states cluster geographically above Delaware. So what's going on? A Delaware Drug Threat Assessment listed heroin as the state's
greatest threat in 200217
and noted that the drug is mainly found in the north of the state, and it seems that a high rate of use is what is responsible
for the majority of heroin seizures; in 1999, Delaware had the fifth highest rate of heroin-related treatment admissions to publicly-funded facilities in the
nation. The Drug Threat Assessment from 2002 also mentioned that most heroin within Delaware is brought into the state by dealers who
get it in multiounce and gram quantities from Philidelphia - the capital of Pennsylvania, which as we've just seen, is America's emperor of opium
Heroin Busts Per 100K People - The Top 20
Heroin Busts Per 100K People - The Bottom 5
Finally, let's look at meth - the drug that, through its starring role in AMC's show Breaking Bad, got me started on this project in the first place. I have
my eyes firmly fixed on one person in our line up: Mr. New Mexico - the home state of the show's protagonist and meth cook extraordinare Walter
White. Let's see what he has to say for himself.
Mexican-based groups control 70-90% of methamphetamine production distributed in the US per year.
Methamphetamine has been exploding across America in recent years
- literally, in the form of backyard labs blowing up in the faces of the people
running them, and figuratively in the sheer amount of meth being produced and consumed nationwide. DEA Domestic Drug Seizure statistics show
that, in the main, law enforcement has been seizing more meth year over year since 198618
There are a few different ways to manufacture meth. There's the 'mom and pop' approach, which often results in the aforementioned explosions and
typically only produces a relatively small amount of the drug
(less than 50 grams a time), and then there's the super lab method (anything over
10lbs of product per run), favored by the Mexico-based groups, who control 70-90% of methamphetamine production and distribution in the U.S.19
It's the superlab approach you'll see in Breaking Bad
, in a state-of-the-art underground facility in the state of New Mexico. And so, does fact mirror
fiction? Just how much meth is being seized in New Mexico and, for that matter, the other 49 states?
Meth Busts Per 100K People - The Top 20
It seems that pesky Mexican border has made Arizona number one again for per capita seizures. And North Dakota is back, avoiding eye contact
in position two. But no New Mexico in the top ten - it actually came in 18th place. But wait, this is for drug busts per 100,00 people. Walter White
manufactured meth in his superlab, so we should instead be evaluating the locations of the 1,000 most recently discovered meth labs, right?
Thanks to data provided by the DEA20, I was able to map the 1,000 most recent labs (see above maps) and also do a per capita ranking of each state.
Meth Labs Per 100K People - The Top 10
New Mexico is conspicuously absent once more. In fact, it didn't account for a single one of the 1,000 most recently discovered meth labs found by
law enforcement and reported by the DEA in their National Clandestine Laboratory Register. Mr. New Mexico has been vindicated. The title for the real-life Walter White, at least based on discovered meth labs per 100,000 people, actually goes to Mr. Kentucky. Missouri was widely reported to be the
number one state for meth labs in 2012, but of the 1,000 most recently discovered clandestine laboratories, Kentucky beat Missouri on a per capita
basis. Maybe, then, the real Walter White is actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee. Or should that be Los Pollos Hermanos, a la Breaking Bad? Oh, never mind.
So, 15,000 or so narcotics seizures later, what do we know? Certain existing trends have been visually reaffirmed, like the extreme
prevalence of methamphetamine and meth labs in the Midwest
, the abundance of heroin in the east, especially in the tri-state area, and California's state-wide stash of
cannabis. But there have been some surprises too, like Texas accounting for so many cocaine interdictions and North Dakota's appearance in two of
the top five lists for per capita drug busts.
Which state across America kept its hands the cleanest? Montana.
In the end, do any of our personified states get to leave the line-up and go home with a free cup of coffee and an apology for wasting their time? In
other words, out of the 15,000 most recent drug busts across America, was there a single state who kept its hands angelically clean?
Well, not really. Including the 10,000 most recent cannabis busts means that every state has at least a few each. Okay, then what if we only book
our perps if they've been responsible for one or more of only the 1,000 most recent drug seizures for each drug type? In that case, Montana comes
extremely close. It only accounted for two busts out of the 4,000 most recent.
Wyoming (3), District of Columbia
(5) (technically a territory, not a state), South Dakota (5) and New Hampshire (8) followed Montana. So, should we let Mr. Montana walk free?
I suppose if we follow in the footsteps of New York City cops, we could cut him free if the two busts were small amounts of weed, intended strictly
for personal use. Unfortunately though, on checking his booking sheet, one of those busts was for meth and the other heroin. Oh well.
'Take 'em away, boys.'