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Meth Is Making a Comeback in California – And It’s Hitting the San Joaquin Valley Hard

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In June 2018, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies announced they had seized 46 pounds of methamphetamine, as well as marijuana, cash and guns, after an eight-month investigation in Fresno and Modesto. (Courtesy of Fresno County Sheriff's Office)

The opioid crisis has been a national focus for years, but new state data shows amphetamines have eclipsed opioids in the San Joaquin Valley.

In 2017, opioid overdoses killed 158 Valley residents. According to the California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard, however, 232 people died from overdosing on amphetamines.

The most notorious amphetamine is methamphetamine, which the state Department of Public Health confirms comprises the majority of the drug family. In the San Joaquin Valley, meth-related fatal overdoses have surpassed those due to opioids since 2015.

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“It’s bad, and it always has been,” said Bob Pennal, a coordinator and former commander of the Fresno Meth Task Force. “Meth has really always been one of, if not the most popular drug, next to marijuana, in the Central Valley.”

Domestic meth production has dropped in recent years, and most trafficked in the U.S. is manufactured in Mexico and smuggled across the southern border. From there, Interstate 5 and State Route 99 are two of the most common corridors used to distribute the drug to the rest of the country.

Although Drug Enforcement Agency data shows the purity of meth has been rising in recent years, an increase in production has brought street prices down considerably.

“A pound of methamphetamine was close to $6,000 just a couple of years ago, and now a pound is $1,000,” Pennal said. A DEA representative estimates a price range in the Fresno area of closer to $1,700-$2,000, but agrees the price has plummeted in the last decade.

In the San Joaquin Valley, fatal overdoses due to meth have overtaken those from opioids since 2015. Statewide, opioids are still more deadly than meth, but the gap is narrowing. ( California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard)

One of California’s hardest-hit counties is Kern, where 123 people succumbed to meth overdoses in 2017.

Like Pennal, Ann Sherwood, who oversees drug prevention with Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, is also not surprised that meth has led to more deaths in the county. “Methamphetamine is by far the most popular drug that we have our clients self-report as their drug of choice,” she said.

County data shows nearly 40% of all clients in county-sponsored treatment programs report using the drug.

“We hear from our partners that they see a lot of meth use,” she said, such as the Bakersfield Police Department, which reported that meth constituted nearly three-quarters of all drugs seized in the city, other than marijuana, in 2018. “When children are removed from the home, we very often hear that it’s methamphetamine-involved,” Sherwood said.

Statewide, meth kills more Californians than any single opioid — like heroin or fentanyl — but the opioid family still leads to more deaths than meth. The gap, however, is rapidly narrowing.


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