San Diego's Methamphetamine Problem Strains Criminal Justice System

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

Jose Escobedo got his first taste of methamphetamine when he was 11-years-old.

“I was offered a smoke," he says. "I was just trying to fit in with these guys, and I take the first hit of smoke off some aluminum, and once I did that, it ... took me to another world.”

For Escobedo, that one hit was all it took.

“It boosted me up, and I felt ... like I was stronger, faster," Escobedo says. "Then I started hallucinating, seeing things.”

Escobedo moved in with a dealer. In exchange for running drugs, Escobedo had a non-stop supply of meth at his fingertips.

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“I would just stay drugged out, I mean for weeks, weeks. And I would sleep for a week straight. ... I was smoking drugs. Smoking, smoking, smoking.”

Eventually, Escobedo began committing crimes to support his habit. He was sent to prison four times.

When Escobedo first started using more than 20 years ago, most of the meth in San Diego County came from makeshift labs. Many of them were in East County.

These days, it’s different.

The methamphetamine on San Diego's streets today is largely produced in Mexican super labs controlled by drug cartels.

The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere, with 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians crossing from Mexico into the U.S. every day.
The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere, with 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians crossing from Mexico into the U.S. every day. ( Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)

A lot of it is smuggled through the San Ysidro border crossing -- the busiest in the western hemisphere -- where an estimated 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians cross every day from Mexico into the U.S.

Sidney Aki, director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, said his agents have found meth hidden in virtually every part of a vehicle, from the trunk to the battery. They’ve even discovered liquid meth in gas tanks.

And pedestrians?

One woman, Aki recalls,  "had a brassiere formed out of narcotics, and actually used as a brassiere, walking across our border.”

Meth Seizures Up at the Border

In 2010, customs agents seized roughly 2,500 kilos of meth at the San Ysidro border crossing.

In 2014, they confiscated more than double that amount -- 5,800 kilos.

One hit of meth is about a quarter of a gram — 5,800 kilos equals 5.8 million hits.

That’s how much was confiscated. Nobody knows how much is actually getting in.

What's worse is the methamphetamine that’s coming across from Mexico is stronger than ever, and the price on the street is lower than ever. That leads to more meth use and more meth-related problems.

Meth Users Filling Jail Cells

Meth users also are taking up a lot of space in the county's jails.

According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), of the people arrested and jailed in the county in 2014, 53 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men tested positive for meth.

“We find that on average, arrestees report that they’ve been using meth for about 16 years," Burke said. "We know that they use it for an average of five days at a time, that they’re using a gram. Many of them smoke it. About one in four report that they’ve injected it.”

*A positive opiate drug test could indicate use of opiates other than heroin, including morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and Codeine. Source: 2014 Adult Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region from SANDAG
*A positive opiate drug test could indicate use of opiates other than heroin, including morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and Codeine. Source: 2014 Adult Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region from SANDAG

Besides U.S. Customs and Border Protection, other law enforcement agencies involved in the fight against meth include the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the county District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Justice Department.

But Laura Duffy, San Diego's U.S. attorney, said others also need to step up.

“We are not going to be able to tackle this problem through law enforcement efforts alone," Duffy said. "This is a community problem. This is a health epidemic problem that we all need to come together and put resources towards.”

Drug Court

Escobedo, the recovering meth addict, has one thing to show for his more than 20 years of using the drug: a rap sheet, which includes charges of assault with a deadly weapon, DUI, hit and run, burglary.

His latest arrest came in January 2014 when he was on parole.

The prosecutor on his case gave him a choice: go back to prison for 12 years or try to kick his habit through the county's Drug Court.

So Escobedo gave Drug Court a shot.

In March, Escobedo attended the court's 12-step meeting with other hard-core meth addicts. All of the men had criminal records. As part of the recovery process, they’re encouraged to be brutally honest about their addiction.

“My addiction is to heroin and methamphetamine," one man with heavily tattooed arms said.

“My focus was getting high, my focus was being around people who are getting high," another addict said.

After the men shared their stories, Arturo Molina, the lead substance abuse counselor in the Chula Vista Drug Court, weighed in.

“In Drug Court you want to learn how to live life without using drugs," he told the men. "But not only that, OK? Drug Court is like a new way of life.”

Daniel Stone, the program manager at the Chula Vista court, said it's a different approach to getting people off of drugs.

“The concept of the Drug Court programs is a collaborative, team approach that involves a San Diego Superior Court judge, district attorney, public defender, and case management and treatment team, and law enforcement," Stone said.

Members of the Drug Court program participate in a 12-step meeting.
Members of the Drug Court program participate in a 12-step meeting. (Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)

People convicted of non-violent drug offenses are eligible for Drug Court. There are four of the courts in San Diego County, and more than 1,600 nationwide.

Addicts go through 18 months of hard work and constant supervision.

They’re required to go to 12-step meetings five days a week, get individual counseling and get a job. They’re frequently drug tested.

And if they test positive? They go to jail.

The length of their jail stay “depends on how many times it’s happened," Stone said. "Sometimes it’s a weekend. Sometimes it’s three weeks.”

If they screw up enough times, addicts have to serve their original sentence.

County officials say 90 percent of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free two years after completing the program.

Escobedo said Drug Court has given him the tools and support to clean up his act. He said there were "a lot of things I needed to do."

"You can’t be in denial," Escobedo says. "You can’t fight the program. You can’t cheat the program, because you’re not actually cheating the program. You’re cheating yourself.”

Drug Court Graduation

The Chula Vista Library auditorium is packed for graduation night for nine Drug Court participants. The court's judge welcomes each graduate to the stage.

The crowd of family members cheered loudly.

Jose Escobedo speaks at the Drug Court graduation ceremony in Chula Vista.
Jose Escobedo speaks at the Drug Court graduation ceremony in Chula Vista. (Matthew Bowler)

Some of the graduates cried, incredulous that they actually made it through the program.

Then Escobedo took the stage and talked about success. For the first time since he was a boy he’s gone 18 months completely clean and sober.

“I have my family here as a witness. I hurt them a lot," Escobedo said. "I plan on staying clean and doing what I gotta do to stay clean, and just keep making them happy. They’re all here: my wife, my kids, ma, my sister Erica, Israel."

In his closing remarks, Escobedo talked about a new way of life.

“I’m happy with everybody who’s in the program. I was able to interact with a lot of people, you know what I mean, and make clean friends," he said. "And it’s something different than going back to the old people, neighborhood, old ways, old ways of thinking. It’s a new way of life, and I plan on staying, and I will be staying clean. And I thank you guys all.”

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Amid thundering applause, Escobedo walked off the the stage with a big smile on his face.