Low cost, high-quality methamphetamine is flooding local streets fueling an increase in crime, hospitalizations and overdose deaths.
The trends come as no surprise to law enforcement agencies who said while the highly addictive drug might not have received as much attention as opioids in recent months, it never lost its hold on the Los Angeles area.
According to data provided by the County of Los Angeles, meth-related visits to emergency departments began rising in about 2010 and skyrocketed in recent years. Countywide trips to emergency departments for meth use increased from about 7,000 in 2010 to nearly 25,000 in 2016. Visits tripled in Santa Monica and the West LA area between 2014 and 2016. Deaths attributed to the drug countywide went from 81 in 2010 to 284 in 2016.
The Public Health data provides side by side comparisons for Los Angeles County as a whole and for Zip codes within four miles of Santa Monica. While the trends are similar, the Santa Monica area saw a dramatic increase in individuals seeking treatment for methamphetamine addiction in the last two years while the County figures remained relatively stable.
Dr. Gary Tsai, Medical Director and Science Officer with Substance Abuse Prevention and Control for the County of Los Angeles Dept. of Public Health said there’s no single, definitive answer as to why the problem is increasing.
“What I can tell you, is according to recent national data that was released from the National Drug Survey on Drug Use and Health, methamphetamine numbers are increasing across the board, particularly for younger folks (18-25) nationally,” he said.
He said his department didn’t know precise causes but there were some theories regarding methamphetamine use on the Westside.
“Some of it may be, with respect to Santa Monica, some of it may track with the homeless population,” he said. “Sometimes homeless individuals they say that they tend to rather use uppers as opposed to downers because they like to be more vigilant when they are out on the street … As we’ve seen homelessness increase one could expect that we’d see drug use increase.”
Lt. Saul Rodriguez with the Santa Monica Police Department said local officers have always seen meth on local streets but changes at the state level have undermined enforcement for some drug crimes. He said officers make arrests for both sale and possession but possession charges are now reduced to a citation.
“There’s really nothing that has any teeth to it for possession,” he said. “We used to have guys in jail or we could send them to drug court but you don’t have that anymore. That started back in 2015 when Prop. 47 passed.”
Proposition 47 was approved by voters in 2014 and became law in 2015. The initiative required misdemeanor sentencing for “non-serious, nonviolent crimes” including personal use of most drugs.
“It’s a very addicting narcotic and if there’s no remedy for a user to find a way to seek treatment, or be mandated through the justice system or voluntarily going through it, then it’s a cycle that keeps happening,” he said. “It’s a very bad drug.”
Rodriguez worked on narcotics in Santa Monica for over 11 years and supervised SMPD’s Narcotics Unit from 2010 to 2015 said methamphetamine was second only to crack cocaine for its ability to hook users.
“We did see a rise in meth use sales and the amount of methamphetamine on the street,” he said. “In my opinion and my opinion only, I think it’s pretty similar (to the county numbers). It’s one of the more prevalent narcotics we’re seeing.”
Rodriguez said reduced sentencing increased the customer base for the drug and at about the same time, Mexican cartels entered the meth market.
DEA Special Agent, Timothy Massino said the cartels have created a far more potent product and are able to ship it in huge quantities.
“The Mexican cartels have basically industrialized the process,” he said.
Massino said the popular T.V. show Breaking Bad was fictionalized, but the producers talked with the DEA and some of the themes were true to life, particularly the profitability of a purified product.
“It’s almost a limitless supply and therefore the price is at an all-time low,” he said. “A lot of the country is dealing with the opioid epidemic and there has been for a few years but for this area, Southern California and the western U.S, methamphetamine has not once ceased being the number one drug threat over the last several years.”
He said national headlines have focused on opioid use but methamphetamine never left the market and in areas like Los Angeles, it has always been the larger threat. Because much of the illegal import comes across the southern California border, the Los Angeles area, in particular, is flooded with the drug.
“This is arguably the number one transportation/shipment point. This is where they generally set up shop and then just like any other commodity it’s trafficked all over the USA,” he said. “There are a lot more people involved in the business here than as you make your way farther east and into smaller cities and that’s at all levels, whether street availability or more wholesale.”
Meth is sold by the pound at wholesale levels and according to Public Health figures, the estimated price per pound dropped from $11,000 in 2012 to $2,400 in 2016. Massino estimated very high-quality meth would be sold for between $1,500 and $2,000 a pound today.
In addition to bringing the cost down and the purity up, the cartels have sophisticated import practices that have enabled them to flood the market despite seizures doubling since 2010.
Dr. Tsai said that at the end of the day, methamphetamine is a significant public health concern that will require a coordinated response.
“This is all of our problems …” he said.