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Meth Use Climbing In San Diego County

October 30, 2013 1:27 p.m.


Cynthia Burke, Director Research, San Diego Association of Governments

Alfredo Aguirre, Director, San Diego County Behavioral Health Division

Related Story: Meth Use Climbing In San Diego County


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Many people in San Diego will remember the bad time in the 1990s when San Diego was known as meth capital of the country. Since that time methamphetamine has moved south into Mexico. The use of meth in San Diego has recently shown an uptake. A survey of drug use by people arrested in San Diego corresponds with numbers from local hospitals and medical examiners offices showing meth use once again increasing in the county. Joining me to talk about the statistics and why they are going up are Cindy Burke and Alfredo Aguirre. Welcome to the show. The result released about SANDAG are part of a larger study taking place. Tell us about the survey.

CYNTHIA BURKE: We've been doing this since the 1980s. It used to be funded across the country. Much of the data we have about drug use trends over time are self-reported. A lot of drug use trends we are able to talk to them about drug use histories. We are able to get urine samples to try and track trends over time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who uses data from the study?

CYNTHIA BURKE: It is used by a variety of stakeholders. They measure how successful are different efforts and also yields data about risk behavior. When one wants to get resources for the community, we can say we know because we do the study.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do the numbers tell us about recent rise in meth use?

CYNTHIA BURKE: We're seeing that is one of the second-most abuse drugs. For female almost half of those who tried meth, 40% actually tested positive and 31% of males. That is the highest it's been since 2006.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the most disturbing parts of the report is what you learned about how long the typical meth users were using the drug.

CYNTHIA BURKE: The average length of use was thirteen years. These individuals go on five-day binges. There is a high risk in the community. Many individuals start using it because they're experimenting. They want to stay up or lose weight and they get addicted. They end up in jail.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Of your study, more girls than boys in juvenile hall had abused drugs. What does the latest study find with teens and meth use?

CYNTHIA BURKE: About a quarter had tried it but only about 4% had tested positive. That number has stayed stable. In 2005 it was 21%. We're still concerned about the increase among adults.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So, not all of these people had been arrested for drug use?

CYNTHIA BURKE: Not at all, one in three individuals have been arrested coming in for other offenses. Meth users are less likely to come in for violent offenses, usually they're coming in from property offense or stealing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what does the survey tell us? What does it tell us about the larger problem of meth use within San Diego?

CYNTHIA BURKE: This is important that we see this trend consistent with others. There is fewer meth labs because meth labs have gone to Mexico. Meth strikeforce, it's a comprehensive body involving prevention, treatment, and law enforcement working together. One of their activities is tip the scale, working with the Sheriff's Department, helping Health and Human Services going out targeting individuals who have warrants, but getting these individuals in for treatment. The message to the community is that meth use is not going away. It's an easy and cheap drug, and it is very addictive. It takes a continued comprehensive strategy. Prevention, getting the message out about the risks and treatment outcomes. About 40% of the individuals we've talked to in jails have tried to get treatment before. I know that the county can have those resources available, and resources are out there for the community.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remind us what sort of effects meth abuse has on people's lives.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: Certainly. When meth becomes part of their life it becomes all of it. It begins to impact relationships with family and friends. Yesterday I visited a program about pregnant women involved in drugs. They understand how this effected their ability to raise their children, and the work it will take to get their children back. They are committed to treatment and these programs are essential. You see, with many women with early sex abuse and trauma and other abuse. With women they tend to internalize and be more depressed. Methamphetamine does bring a euphoric state that counters that. That is not the mode of treatment that should deal with it. We're knowing that treatment is the better source.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They are self-medicating with meth?


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do we know the risks of even trying it once?

CYNTHIA BURKE: We've seen the horror stories. We've seen people with teeth falling out, and no one sets out to be a tweaker. People who are into it get addicted. I think that anytime you're doing a drug, you can do it once and never want to do it again but you never know. It's an unpredictable substance, it is highly toxic. Studies have shown the effect on the brain, do not mess with it. I cannot put a clearer message message out there. It's not going away, it's still here, people are using it to stay up at jobs. Meth users are more likely to be using at their job than any other. Truck driving, building houses, having to stay up long hours, and it could be affecting you as a community member.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: It's a false sense of when they feel like they are achieving more, they feel like they're getting more work done and doing better in school, they are meeting physical fitness goals but this is short-lived. It's a false sense that they are achieving goals, this takes a nasty turn into addiction.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is meth addiction one of the more difficult addictions to treat?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: It is. It requires a total commitment to recovery. We often see that young mothers have been through this before. Certainly families can remind individuals slipping back into addiction. It's always a challenge. Fortunately we have many programs across the county. Many that treat people with methamphetamine abuse. It is a challenge, and we certainly want to turn this trend around.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I feel the need to ask, meth use really entered pop culture recently with Breaking Bad. What influenced do you think the program may have had on the way meth is viewed by people?

CYNTHIA BURKE: I did watch Breaking Bad, I do not think it glamorized it at all. I think there are shows that glamorize drug use, but that was not the case in this situation with Breaking Bad. I don't think anyone watched it and thought they would want to try it. I think it's a part of life, it did show the violence associated with the drug trade, and some of the other consequences for people who get involved with meth. It did paint a very realistic picture.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: It talks about the false sense of achievement. The main character making money and seeing his family provided for very short term, and then quickly this being destroyed because of this and himself. It certainly is a nice depiction of what we've been talking about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To get back to the survey, are there any addiction programs for people in the county jail?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: Yes there are, the Sheriff provides substance abuse education. They've been doing that for years. Also, juvenile hall has a program specifically that provides more focus substance abuse education for youth as well as reaching out to family so they are aware. So they are more aware of issues of substance abuse and can follow up in terms of treatment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What you've you've been saying it seems to me that some mental health support may be needed as well.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: About fourteen years ago we started an initiative, that builds capacity of healthcare providers to provide care for this. We started training drug providers to understand issues of this, impacts of differentiating diagnosis and giving them capacity and ability to work with individuals and have both conditions going on, that is part of what we're trying to do is integrate the practice. We are finding the high numbers of people who high co-occurring disorders.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is that what you found in your survey?

CYNTHIA BURKE: Yes, there are dual diagnosis issues. Many individuals going to the jail. In time you need to look at the totality of the situation. If you're only addressing one issue then you will not see full recovery.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As he said, the production side of meth has largely moved south, where our users getting the drug?

CYNTHIA BURKE: More of them are saying that the demand is higher yet the price is lower. They found 355 meth labs in 2012 but there are only seventy-nine on the street. The Mexican drug cartels bring it up working with other team members to get into California. It's out there and readily available. We also found that about a third of the individuals we talked to, they are involved as middlemen. We had an incident last week with the officer shooting and he was a meth user. We also see that about a quarter of the individuals carry a weapon when they go get the drug. This is information that we want to get to law enforcement as well. People are protecting themselves and they know it is risky.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What else can we do in San Diego County?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: The meth strikeforce is critical here. We're certainly dedicated to continuing education for family about harm and effects of methamphetamine and other drugs. We need to continue prevention and continued support. We're trying to do more with Live Well San Diego to talk about the findings, and talking about issues of substance abuse and mental illness. A lot of our efforts with Live Well and other funding sources ñ including mental health service act funds that are prevention oriented ñ we're trying to weave that into messages. We talked about reducing stigma with a mental illness. We're also looking at the next few years how to develop messages for people to really understand how substance abuse is an addiction and has medical implications. Bring more awareness to that. It will have to be a community effort here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to leave it there. Thank you so much.