Drug fads come and go in California. But not methamphetamine. This highly addictive, widely available, dangerous drug has been a 20-year scourge, especially here in the Central Valley.
There are multiple ways to assess just how deep and wide is the chaos caused by meth in our community. Consider:
Thirty-five percent of the 2,034 people who entered licensed and certified treatment programs in the year ending in June named meth as their drug of choice. Stanislaus County's meth rate was significantly higher than the statewide rate listed by people entering treatment. A top official with county Behavioral Health and Recovery Services said meth has held this dubious No. 1 distinction for many years.
In Merced County, law enforcement has reported making strides against those who produce the drug. Case in point: The Merced County Sheriff's Department and the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force combined last year reported 244 meth-related calls for service, 244 cases, two lab dumps and 234 arrests. That's a dramatic drop from 2003, when the Sheriff's Department and task force reported 641 meth-related calls for service, 554 cases, 259 lab dumps and 4,357 arrests.
Despite the gains, however, methamphetamine remains a problem for law enforcement in Merced County and elsewhere.
Meth use and property crime go hand in hand. "There's a notorious methamphetamine problem in this state," said Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "Where you have a lot of drug problems, police will tell you, you have a lot of property crimes. It's like peanut butter and jelly."
In May, during a question-and-answer interview on multiple topics, JoLynn DiGrazia, executive director of Turlock's Westside Ministries, was asked what she saw as the biggest challenges facing her area, particularly its youth. Her response: "The continual battleground is methamphetamine use. The property crimes go along with it."
Compared with 2000, when the McClatchy newspapers in California teamed up on a special report called "A Madness Called Meth," there are fewer big busts today and fewer labs causing major ground pollution problems.
The reduction in labs is partly due to state laws that have the precursor drugs, notably pseudoephedrine, harder to purchase a change that also has made it less convenient for the average consumer to buy cold and allergy medicines.
While there are fewer labs producing meth in the valley, it is readily available. Most is brought in from Mexico.
The demand also hasn't subsided because meth is relatively cheap, especially compared with a drug such as cocaine. Street dealers, many gang-related, sell meth for $20 to $30 for a "teener" (one- sixteenth of a gram).
Meth also is virulently addictive. An undercover agent said recently that people get addicted so fast and some get so desperate that they will fry their own urine in a pan to extract meth crystals.
Tweakers those who use meth day after day exhibit poor judgment, strange sleeping patterns, agitation, confusion, anxiety, paranoia and sometimes violence.
Stories of the extreme behavior of people on meth make the news, such as an armed man who confronted a parishioner at Sacramento's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, taking his cell phone and wallet. He was "experiencing a mental episode" as a result of using meth. A woman driving under the influence of meth ran over and killed a 6-year-old boy walking to school and injured his 8-year-old brother. In May, a 31-year-old Oakdale mother was sentenced to nine years in prison for using methamphetamine while she was breast-feeding, which resulted in the death of her infant daughter.
Meth reaches across the demographic landscape: urban and rural; men and women; white, black, La- tino and Asian. Experts who deal with the effects of meth agree that we need a three-pronged approach: prevention, treatment and disrupting the market by going after the manufacturers and distributors.
All came under hard times during the Great Recession. Police and sheriff's departments downsized or shuttered their narcotics units.
Voter-approved Proposition 36 in 2000 diverted those convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses to drug treatment, but the money ran out after five years. Others challenge whether Proposition 36 was ever a wise strategy because participants took the treatment option so casually.
Drug court has been a much more effective strategy because the convicted addicts are closely monitored and faced graduated sanctions for relapses.
The best and least expensive answer is education and prevention steering people, especially youngsters, away from meth by making them fully understand that it is a dangerous and destructive drug that can ruin their lives.
With attention and focus on front-end strategies that work, Californians and the valley can take on this 20-year scourge a quality-of-life issue for us all and a life-and-death issue for far too many.