In San Diego, Methamphetamine Deaths at Highest Level in 20 Years

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Corpses in body bags lie on gurneys in the San Diego County morgue in this undated photo. (Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)

Methamphetamine is dangerous.

If you want proof, just go to the San Diego County morgue.

In 2014, county records show 262 deaths from meth-related causes. That’s more than the number of people who died from the flu and homicides combined that year.

Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the county's chief deputy medical examiner, said his office sees meth-related deaths almost every day.

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“The last couple of years have actually been records for us," Lucas said. "We’ve seen more methamphetamine-related deaths in the last couple of years than we’ve ever seen in the last 20 years.”

He said meth abuse isn't confined to young people. It's killing people of all ages.

“For example, in 2014, our youngest meth-related death was a 17-year-old girl that jumped out of a second-story window while intoxicated with methamphetamine," Lucas said. "Our oldest was a 70-year-old man who had heart disease, but he was intoxicated with methamphetamine.”

Lucas said meth can make underlying health conditions worse. People with heart problems who use the drug, for example, are at even higher risk of dying from a heart attack or a stroke.

But he said the high number of meth-related deaths don’t tell the whole story.

“The people that come to this office are really just the tip of the iceberg, a small proportion, a small piece of the pie of the methamphetamine problem," Lucas said.

The overdose death numbers do not include drug-related suicides, homicides or other causes of death in which drugs were involved.
The overdose death numbers do not include drug-related suicides, homicides or other causes of death in which drugs were involved. (Brooke Ruth/KPBS The overdose death numbers do not include drug-related suicides, homicides or other causes of death in which drugs were involved.)

ER Visits Up Dramatically

In 2011, patients with meth-related problems accounted for 3,700 ER visits. That number jumped to more than 10,000 in 2014.

Dr. Danielle Douglas works in the county’s busiest ER, at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. She said the number of meth cases that come through there wears on doctors.

Dr. Danielle Douglas is in emergency room physician at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa.
Dr. Danielle Douglas is in emergency room physician at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. (Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

"I mean, yeah, at the end of a shift, and I’m just beat down, and it’s another meth addict?," Douglas said. "And you just kind of want to say, 'What the hell’s going on here?'”

What’s going on is the meth that’s being sold on the street is extremely potent and highly addictive. Long-term meth use also alters the brain, and can cause severe mood swings, violent behavior and delusions.

And overdoses and deaths.

So what’s the attraction?

The high from methamphetamine is incredible, said Tom Freese, director of training for UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs.

“When it goes inside the brain, it stimulates a release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical inside the brain, that’s really unparalleled," Freese said. "There’s really no other way, from either natural or chemically induced kind of phenomenon to reach that peak of dopamine.”

Freese said methamphetamine also affects the serotonin system, another emotional regulator in the brain.

Meth also alters a person’s inhibitory control.

“That ability to say, 'I want to do that, but I’m not gonna do that,' and to put the brakes on a particular activity," Freese said. "That seems to be damaged, as well, as part of that overall prefrontal cortex, or the front part of the brain, that helps us make good decisions from bad decisions.”

Chasing the first high

Jose Escobedo of National City started smoking meth when he was 11.

Later on, he snorted it. But Escobedo said the best high was when he injected it.

“Shooting up drugs was like bouncing up and down, like it gave me like 10 times more than with smoking," Escobedo said. "So it was like a new experience, like a new thing that took over my life.”

Jose Escobedo is a recovering methamphetamine addict.
Jose Escobedo is a recovering methamphetamine addict. (Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)

Escobedo was addicted to meth for more than 20 years. At his peak, Escobedo shot up six times a day.

"It wasn’t just to get high. It was just a habit," he said. "I just wanted to see it being drawn into the blood, I just wanted to see it going into my veins, I just wanted to feel it. I guess I was chasing my first high.”

He's now a recovering meth addict.