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San Diego County's Meth Problem Is Not Going Away

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January 6, 2015 1:08 p.m.

GUESTS:

Ed Prendergast, undersheriff at San Diego County's Sheriff's Department.

John Richardson, vice president at Mental Health Systems, a non-profit provider of drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in San Diego.

Related Story: San Diego County's Meth Problem Not Going Away

Transcript:

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: Top story on Midday Edition. If you think the meth problem in San Diego is a think of the past I knew Meth Strike Force report card shows you are wrong. It’s true the bad old days of the 90s are gone when Sand Diego was dubbed the meth capital of the world. But now San Diego was on the receiving end as methamphetamine is smuggled, that is, into the US from manufacturing labs in Mexico. In fact, the Border Patrol says that last year 63% of all the meth seized at US ports of entry was seized right here in San Diego. And the report card goes on to outline the human cost of meth use in San Diego, more arrests of both smugglers and users and more deaths. Joining me to talk about how the meth problem has changed in San Diego are my guests, San Diego County Undersheriff, Ed Prendergast. He is a member of the San Diego Meth Strike Force. Ed welcome to the show.

Ed Prendergast: Thank you Maureen.

Maureen Cavanaugh: John Richardson is a Vice President at Mental Health Systems; it’s a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation service in San Diego. He is also a member of the Meth Strike Force. John welcome to the program.

John Richardson: Thank you Maureen.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Ed, the headline that came out of the new Meth Strike Force report card is that meth seizures are up and have been going up for the past five years. Give us an idea of how much they have increased.

Ed Prendergast: Well, they have increased quite significantly over the past five years, if you look at this last year we had the highest amount seized and that was 6,682 kilograms, which is a 14,732 pounds of meth. That’s a lot of meth and over the last five years, the amount of meth seize has gone up significantly each year.

Maureen Cavanaugh: I read that it was a 300% increase from 2009 to 2014.

Ed Prendergast: That is correct.

Maureen Cavanaugh: How are we to understand this increase? Is it that more meth is being smuggled into the country or that you are getting better at finding it?

Ed Prendergast: I think a little of both. I do think that law enforcement through intelligence like policing and by working with state local and federal agencies working together, we are getting better at finding the meth that’s coming in, but there is still a great demand in the United States and the meth is coming through San Diego, 68% to 80% of the meth is coming through San Diego County. So the demand is there in United States and the supply is there at Mexico and Mexican drug cartels had established organization that they had the infrastructure that would allow them to easily move a new product, which was meth, when they got involved in the meth business, to produce the meth in Mexico and then movie it into the United States.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And is one of the reasons for the demand in the United States the fact that meth is cheap?

Ed Prendergast: Meth, right now is cheaper than it’s been in years. You can buy a pound of meth for as low as $3,500, it’s historically low.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And compared to let’s say cocaine.

Ed Prendergast: Cocaine, yeah, a pound of cocaine would be between $12,000 and $13,000.

Maureen Cavanaugh: So that’s significantly less than. Give us an idea if you would, Ed, of how and where this meth is being manufactured and how it’s being trafficked into the United States.

Ed Prendergast: Well, it’s being manufactured in Mexico in Baja and in Mexico in super labs and a super labs’ able to produce over 10 pounds per production cycle and the way they are smuggling it in, if you look at San Diego, San Diego has a very busy port, some people say it’s the busiest port of entry in the world. We have 50,000 vehicles crossing every day and 25,000 pedestrians coming across every day. There is a lot of opportunity for people to carry the meth along with them as they come into our country. And the trend we see now is for the cartels to use less quantity but more frequently deliveries.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And the smugglers are getting more creative too in the way that they are actually smuggling methamphetamine, some of it is liquefied, is that right?

Ed Prendergast: That’s true. Actually, the methamphetamine is suspended in a liquid so it’s called liquid meth and it can be hidden in gas tanks, it can be hidden in anything where you have liquids. So for example you could put it in a beer bottle, you can put it in a juice bottle, you can put it in a reservoir in a car anywhere that they are going to make it hardest to detect.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Now as you say, it seems like most of the meth that’s coming into the United States is coming in here through our ports of entry. Is most of it staying here?

Ed Prendergast: No, most of it’s moving on, most of it’s moving to the rest of the country, the Los Angeles basin serves as a national distribution point. So it moves through San Diego, some stays here, there is a demand here, but most of it moves up to LA to be distributed throughout our country.

Maureen Cavanaugh: I just been speaking with San Diego Country Undersheriff, Ed Prendergast, and we’re speaking about the information that’s come out in the most recent Meth Strike Force report card here in San Diego. I want to re-introduce John Richardson, he is my second guest. He is Vice President at Mental Health Systems and John when the drug, when meth does stay here in San Diego, is there a typical type of user or just across all demographics?

John Richardson: Yeah, it’s across all demographic. Meth affects the young, it affects the old. We are finding the age of people coming into treatment for meth abuses a little bit older than it was in the past. In the past, it was mid-20s to the early 30s and we are finding it now that more and more people are coming in for meth treatment all the way into their 40s, I mean we do have people in their 50s and 60s and that’s the real concern with the up kick and meth again is the health piece, the physical health piece because meth does a lot of damage.

Maureen Cavanaugh: I remember doing a program on meth abuse several years ago and was surprised to learn that this drug seems to be especially attractive to women.

John Richardson: The number of women that are coming into treatment with meth as their primary drug of choice has risen quite a bit.

Maureen Cavanaugh: What kind of effect does it have on the community, for instance death and hospitalizations involving meth have apparently increased, isn’t that right?

John Richardson: Yes, from 2009, the county coroner’s office have shown that from 2009 and 2013 it’s actually doubled, the number of meth deaths per 100,000 has gone from 138 to 267 persons.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And these are not just from overdose, is that right?

John Richardson: No, we are finding now that a lot of cardiovascular health in meth users, there’s damage to the cardiovascular system as well as other systems, but the cardiovascular system is really affected by long term meth use, maybe not short term to begin with but those that are coming in at an older ages especially are dying of lots of different physical health reasons.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And when we talk about long term meth abuse, how long?

John Richardson: I think it depends on the dosage and how, you know not just a period of time they are using but the amount of meth that’s being used and what is people get into the lifestyle of using meth and they starts out and it works. It’s a solution for people who are with low self-steam, with low income, with having all kinds of life problems but it works it first, you know, it helps them feel better off in their lives and then once they are addicted, they cannot live without it and then their lifestyle changes and socialization changes, their behaviors changed. They don’t see medical doctors and so then they stay for a longer period of time on the meth and they are entrapped in it.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And it have a go on their cardiovascular system is what you are saying.

John Richardson: Absolutely.

Maureen Cavanaugh: It also, in the strike force report card, there is also a quote that this meth use causes havoc in families. Tell us about that.

John Richardson: Absolutely. The children of the family, you know that the meth user is only one person, individual that is affected by the meth use. When you go into the families and when you are on meth you are not there for your family, you can't be there for your family, physiologically, spiritually, physically you are not there for your family because the one thing that is important in your life is that meth use. And although you still, a person still love their family, care for their family, they don’t have the ability to do any longer. So it affects the family, it affects the community as a whole. If you are living in an apartment complex, it has a methamphetamine use in it, and then the entire community is affected.

Maureen Cavanaugh: John, there’s someone who works with addictions. I remember also from this conversation a couple of years ago that apparently methamphetamine, crystal meth addiction is one of the hardest things to quit. Why is that?

John Richardson: Crystal meth addiction is hard to quit not only because physiologically it’s hard to quit, but behaviorally. Meth addict become socially and behaviorally entrapped in the meth use and their lifestyle changes and then they can't quit, they not only physiologically they have a hard time quitting it, but they, one-fifth of the quotient that makes up meth addition is the meth. The other part is a biological, the physiological, the social effects and the spiritual effects. Meth addicts have said to me in the past that my life is great; there is no color in their life. So you take away the meth which gives them that high at times and everything that goes up has to come down and very, very low, you take that way and their life turns gray and it’s very hard to bring that color back to their life.

Maureen Cavanaugh: John, what treatments are available for meth users in San Diego?

John Richardson: There’s publicly-funded treatment, there’s regional recovery centers which are like outpatient programs, there’s women’s perinatal programs, there’s residential programs, there’s lots of treatment for meth addicts. One-third of the people that are entering treatment currently meth is still their drug of choice, their primary drug of choice. There is treatment out there.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, Undersheriff Ed Prendergast let me go back to you, are meth users getting better recovery treatment in jail?

Ed Prendergast: That’s a great question Maureen. When AB109 was passed….

Maureen Cavanaugh: That’s prison realignment.

Ed Prendergast: Prison realignment that gave us an opportunity because prior to its passage we had inmates for a relatively short period of time. We had NA programs and AA programs in the facilities, but they were voluntary. With the passage of AB109, we have totally changed our philosophy in the jail because we have the inmates longer and we realize that we need to do what we can to start their recovery process in our facilities. So right now in our jails, we have numerous programs, we have over 10 programs that inmates can participate in and we do something called motivational interviewing with all of our inmates. What we try to determine, what’s impacting their life in a negative manner and then we are placing them into programs in our facilities so that when they get out, to have a better chance to become pretty adaptive. In our facilities for the first time, we have probation officers who are drug and alcohol treatment specialist and so the great length that they have is when the folks leave our facility, they will still have a connection with the inmates. So we are trying to do what we are calling a warm handoff so that the gains that they got in the jail isn’t lost when they return home. And they were also working with community groups trying to involve them more in our facilities so again so when the inmates leave our facilities they have somewhere to go, they have people that understand their problems and they can help them with their addiction. We are also signing people up under the Affordable Care Act which provides many folks who never had the ability to get drug treatment now under the Affordable Care Act; they will be eligible to have that paid for.

Maureen Cavanaugh: It does seem, what you have been describing are big improvements in the way the county is dealing with its meth problem, but it seems from the numbers that it’s sort of chasing a growing problem. Ed, is there any way of working on the supply end in other words to try to shut down the supply, the way that we were successful in doing in the United States by making the ingredients of methamphetamine more difficult to acquire?

Ed Prendergast: In 2005, the Federal government passed The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which basically ban the precursors, restricted the sale of the precursors and then….

Maureen Cavanaugh: Which is why you have to get your antihistamines and now you can't just buy them off the shelves anymore.

Ed Prendergast: That’s correct and so, you know, that created incentive for Mexico, but Mexico a few years later in 2005, they started to place some restrictions. But in 2008, Mexico banned the precursors also. So the methamphetamine you are seeing coming out of Mexico now is little different in that what they were, they were able to get the ephedrine and the pseudoephedrine, so it’s a little less potent, it’s the DL form of methamphetamine.

Maureen Cavanaugh: But it’s still coming.

Ed Prendergast: It’s still coming and you know they have those super labs still going down. The Mexican government, we have the federal agencies have trained them what to look for and in July of 2011, the Mexican government seized 840 metric tons of precursors. And then in February of 2012, they seized 15 tons of meth in Mexico. So the Mexican government is working on the problem, but you know that’s something that we as a local agency can't really control, but I know the federal agencies are working with the Mexican government to try and make a difference down there.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And John, I am going to ask you a final question if you could briefly. Is there anyone thing that you would like to see the county do that it’s not doing to try to mitigate this problem?

John Richardson: I believe the county is doing a great job, we’re all working together on this and I think the power of the Meth Strike Force, it’s law enforcement, it’s the court system, it’s the county Health and Human Service Agency and it’s community-based organization and my agency, Mental Health Systems, we have services throughout the state. We have 80 programs throughout the state and in San Diego County; I have to tell you San Diego County is well known and well ahead of the curb. The AB109 piece coming together and doing things around physical health, around mental health, around alcohol and drug and around the law enforcement combined San Diego County is way ahead of curb.

Maureen Cavanaugh: I want to thank you both; I have been speaking with San Diego County Undersheriff, Ed Prendergast and John Richardson, Vice President of Mental Health Systems. Thank you both very much.

John Richardson and Ed Prendergast: Thank you Maureen.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Coming up are you struggling with your New Year’s resolutions. We will discuss how to get your brain to co-operate. It’s 12:20 and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition.