For the last dozen years, a concerted effort to suppress methamphetamine use in San Diego County has, at times, been like a Whac-a-Mole game—just as one problem's solved, another pops up. But a report card released last week by the county's Methamphetamine Strike Force touts success: For instance, between 2006 and 2007 meth-related ER visits went down by a third; 7 percent fewer adult and 2 percent fewer juvenile arrestees tested positive for meth. That latter statistic is especially significant: In 2005, one out of every five juvenile arrestees tested positive for meth.
Now it's roughly one out of 12.
But the numbers have trended down before and then shot back up. In 2000, for instance, 28 percent of arrested adults tested positive for meth—three points lower than 2007's 31 percent. The following year, in 2001, positive meth tests were at 34 percent; in 2003, they went up to 40 percent, and in 2005, almost half of all adults arrested in San Diego County tested positive for meth. At that point, the strike force had been around since 1996, created by the county Board of Supervisors shortly after Shawn Nelson, a meth addict, stole a tank from the U.S. National Guard Amory in Kearny Mesa and led police on a chase through Clairemont. Back then, the focus was on closing down the mom-and-pop meth labs that had cropped up around the county.
“We're in the '90s, San Diego's horrible, things are blowing up, people have labs all over the place,” said Damon Mosler, head of the District Attorney's narcotics unit, “and then we change the rules—we changed our awareness and our enforcement.”
But as the local labs were shut down and California started to restrict sales of over-the-counter cold medication that contained ephedrine—the main ingredient in meth—production shifted to Mexico. When that happened, almost a decade's worth of progress was wiped out.
“Drug cartels flooded the market with a lot of really cheap, high-quality methamphetamine,” said Angela Goldberg, facilitator for the county's Methamphetamine Strike Force. Indeed, samples of meth seized by law enforcement in 2004 and 2005 show a more pure product than what was available previously.
“For a long time, we always had really crappy meth, like 25- to 30-percent pure,” Mosler said. In 2004, the purity range hit 70 to 100 percent—and, as the purity level went up, so did the death rate.
Then, in 2007, purity started to drop. Mosler said Mexico followed the United States' lead and put controls on the amount of pseudoephedrine that's allowed into the country, as well as focused efforts on shutting down labs.
“You're seeing more local enforcement,” Mosler said. “The amounts being seized [at the border] are down—prices have gone up.”
Cynthia Burke, director of criminal-justice research for the San Diego Association of Governments, who tracks arrestee data for the Methamphetamine Strike Force, thinks the numbers will continue to improve. When she and her staff go into the jails to conduct interviews, they look at more than just drug-test results.
“We're seeing positive trends,” she said. Inmates “are saying [meth] is harder to get than it was in the past and it's also more expensive.”
But even though more than half of Burke's interviewees said they had a somewhat harder time getting the drug in 2007 compared with 2006, 70 percent said the drug is still relatively easy to obtain, according to the strike force report.
“There's little bumps up and down, and I think that goes to the kind of the chronic nature of addiction,” Goldberg said. “San Diego has had a meth problem much longer than any city in the country. We got some changes, and then the market changed. Now we've got some more changes, and we're hoping to stay in front of the market trends, if we can.”
Staying in front of the trends, though, might require a shift in focus. Just as meth replaced cocaine and heroin as the problem drug of the last two decades, cocaine and heroin are making a comeback, Mosler said. The prescription drug Oxycontin is proving difficult to get a handle on, too, he said.
“We have young people dying from it or getting addicted to heroin from it,” he said. “We're seeing more young people getting caught with heroin down at the border—and heroin's not a young person's drug. It's coming back.”