The proliferation of zombie-like figures slumped on the City’s streets unfortunately cannot be chalked up to Halloween, but is in many cases closely related to the insidious reach of Los Angeles’s methamphetamine crisis.
In 2018 the explosion of meth in Los Angeles made national news and while public attention may currently be trained on the opioid epidemic or the fentanyl crisis, the problem has not abated since then. In fact the drug has only become cheaper, more potent and in certain instances more deadly.
Innovation in the chemical production process has led to the creation of a more pure and therefore addictive meth. A flood of money from China has made it easier for individuals in Mexico to acquire the chemicals for production and brought down the price of the product. The addition of the synthetic opioid fentanyl into some batches increases the risk of overdose.
“Meth has become like marijuana once was, it is everywhere. Users report it is extremely cheap, even free,” said Santa Monica Police Department Officer Jason Olson and Investigator Evan Raleigh in a joint statement.
According to DEA Special Agent Bill Bodner this comparison is apt, as California’s legalization of marijuana is what initially set off LA’s meth crisis.
“Look back at marijuana legalization in California and look at 2016, the law was passed, 2018 the law took effect, the next year we had a 120 percent increase in methamphetamine seizures in California,” said Bodner.
According to Bodner, the legalization destroyed the market for Mexican marijuana and led drug producers to pivot to a new product. Meth quickly became the drug of choice, as it requires neither the large amount of land necessary for heroin production nor the South American trading networks needed for trafficking cocaine.
Bodner also said that around this time the US-Mexico trade war was kicking off and Chinese nationals began to use investment in Mexican meth production as a means to bring money to the US. This made it very easy for producers to obtain large quantities of the chemicals necessary to make meth, which in turn drove down the price of the product.
Los Angeles was disproportionately impacted by this uptick in meth production due to its proximity to Mexico, its status as a transportation hub and its large potential user base.
According to SMPD, the decriminalization of drug possession is another factor contributing to an increase in local meth usage.
“The system is more interested in treating the underlying conditions that cause addiction. These efforts are appropriate and noble. However, without consequence and deterrence there is nothing to stop somebody from using until they die, or lose control over themselves to the point that they become dangerous to others,” said the SMPD statement.
While users of meth come from all different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds, a population of particular concern is individuals experiencing homelessness.
“I would say the most used drug by the homeless population would be methamphetamine,” said Bodner. “Whatever is available and cheap is going to become more popular and become used more.”
This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Gary Tsai, who is the Director of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control in the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
“Methamphetamine is a stimulant… one thing we’ve heard is that homeless individuals don’t like using sedatives because they feel like they need to stay alert to stay safe on the street,” said Tsai.
According to SMPD, the use of meth among unhoused individuals has also been aided by the free distribution of meth pipes in an effort by Public Health to decrease needle use.
Prolonged use of the drug can cause severe health and brain damage and lead to temporary or permanent psychosis. Users can be rendered incapable of maintaining themselves, communicating rationally with others and may become consumed with paranoia.
One of the recent evolutions of Los Angeles’s meth crisis is that while there is evidence to believe the quantity of meth available is decreasing slightly, there is also reason to believe that the dangers of the drug are increasing — for housed and unhoused individuals.
When the crisis first took off the amount of meth seized by the DEA in the greater Los Angeles area jumped from around 7,500 lbs in 2018 to around 16,500 lbs in 2019. Then in 2020 that number dropped slightly to around 16,000 lbs and with two months remaining in 2021 it is currently at 11,700 lbs.
This decrease in meth availability is not mirrored by a decrease in meth-related overdoses. The L.A. County Coroner recorded 650 meth overdose deaths in 2018, 822 deaths in 2019 and 1,389 deaths in 2020.
According to Tsai there are several factors behind the increase in meth deaths, a key one being the pandemic. There was a 52 percent increase in overall drug overdoses across L.A. County from March to December 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019.
“Part of the reason why we’re seeing an increase in overdoses could be because people are using in isolation and when people are not using an isolation, they’re more likely to get help if they’re overdosing,” said Tsai.
Another factor that might be behind this uptick is the change in chemical production processes that has led to a more pure meth product. In recent years meth has gone from being primarily produced using a chemical called ephedrine to a new process called P2P production that creates a stronger substance and can use a wider and cheaper range of chemicals to do so.
“We’ve seen increased deaths; It’s not clear to us how much of that is due to potentially increased potency of methamphetamine in these P2P analogs or if it’s just more meth use,” said Tsai. “I can say I wouldn’t be surprised if an increase in potency is leading to more deaths.”
Tsai explained that a more potent substance is also a more addictive one and leads to greater consumption and tolerance. A higher tolerance can increase the risk of overdoses on meth, while a greater frequency of use increases the odds of encountering a lethal batch of fentanyl-laced meth.
Bodner said that the increase in fentanyl production is likely one of the reasons why Los Angeles meth seizures are dropping slightly. However, he echoed Tsai’s concern that fentanyl is creating more danger among drug users.
According to Bodner, producers might mix fentanyl with meth to try and create a better high as there is a theory that the opiate will offset the negative perceived effects of the stimulant meth. The same thing is occurring with cocaine.
“They’re not doing it to kill people, they’re not necessarily doing it to get people hooked, they’re doing it to create a more desirable drug,” said Bodner.
While meth remains the leading drug behind overdoses in LA, fentanyl is on track to surpass it in the coming year.
In 2015 there were only 28 recorded fentanyl overdose deaths in L.A. County. This jumped to 263 in 2018 and 462 in 2019, before skyrocketing to 1,125 in 2020.
Many of these deaths do not come from intentional fentanyl use, but from fake prescription pills that users believe are Oxycontin or Xanax and instead contain a lethal amount of fentanyl. Bodner fears that a similar process may soon be applied to meth.
“I think we will see a lot of fake Adderall pills coming in from Mexico and again, these are pills that don’t have the pharmaceutical ingredient at all,” said Bodner. “It’s just going to be methamphetamine with some other inner fillers and binders and it’s going to be colored, shaped and stamped just like an Adderall pill.”
While it is harder to overdose on meth than fentanyl, the consequences of this could nevertheless be devastating as it introduces a customer base of study drug users to meth. Having a swath of teenage and college age students become hooked on the drug would open up a new tragic chapter in LA’s meth crisis.