Where, exactly, is the meth capital of the world?

Media criticism.
Aug. 4 2005 7:40 PM

The Meth Capital of the World

Where is it?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Everybody concedes that New York City is the financial capital of the world, Los Angeles the entertainment capital, and Tokyo its sushi capital.

But where is the methamphetamine capital of the world? American newspapers can't seem to agree. Submit the search terms "methamphetamine capital of the world" or "meth capital of the world" into Nexis, and it spits back almost 70 citations between 1983 and 2005, with many writers and sources disputing the capital's precise GPS coordinates.

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In 1983, the Associated Press started the quarrel by quoting a Philadelphia policeman who said, "Philadelphia has the dubious distinction of being the meth capital of the world." In 1987, 1989, and 1993, Los Angeles Times news stories cited law enforcement officials to bestow the distinction on San Diego. In 1989,the Washington Post generalized its location to all of Southern California. The Riverside Press Enterprise seized bragging rights for the southwest portion of Riverside County, Calif., in 1993.

Perhaps as a result of some trade-deficit confusion, the Los Angeles Times called both Japan and California the meth capital in 1995 stories. The Press Enterprise widened its definition to all of Riverside and neighboring San Bernardino counties in 1996. The Kansas City Star moved the capital closer to the geographic center of the nation when it described Jackson County, Mo., as the meth capital in a story. Alt-newspaper New Times Los Angeles yanked it back to Riverside County in 1997. Contesting the designation that year was Florida's Lakeland Ledger, which put it in Polk County, Fla.

It's not like these areas coveted the title. In 1998, Assistant District Attorney Don Inskeep promised that new law-enforcement resources "will allow us to say that the county of Riverside will no longer tolerate being the meth capital of the world."

In 2000, challengers for the name sprang up across the country as the Chattanooga Free Times, the Tulsa World, the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader, the Daily Town Talk of Alexandria, La., and the Fresno Bee all placed the capital in their readership areas. The Press Enterprise kept insisting on bragging rights for Riverside, disregarding the assistant D.A, and the Los Angeles Times crowned California's Central Valley.

In 2001, the Cox News service quoted a source who put it in Mesa County, Colo.'s Grand Valley. The Spokane Spokesman-Review touted North Idaho that year; the Daily News of Los Angeles named Southern California; the AP tagged both Lane County, Ore., and the Fresno area as meth capitals, and the Statesman Journal of Salem, Ore.,gave the honor back to the Californicators.

In 2002, the Los Angeles Times (twice) called the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Berdo the capital. The Palm Springs Desert Sun seconded that. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted an unnamed addict who said Jefferson County, Mo., was the meth capital, and a commentary in the Lakeland Ledger attempted to win the handle back for that area.

The Kansas City Star and the Los Angeles Times must have put the phrase on a hot key in 2003, repeatedly claiming Jackson County and Riverside County, respectively, as the capital.

Probing the show-biz angle, Variety declared the entire California desert as capital in 2004. A district attorney in Athens, Tenn., waved off the label that year for his jurisdiction. "We hear we are the meth capital of the world, and while statistics are useful tools, I'm not entirely sure this (title) is justified," Jerry Estes told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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