By David R. Shorey, East County Program Manager, Institute for Public Strategies
December 15, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) -- East County’s reputation is pretty solid when it comes to open space, small town living and friendly people. But when it comes to methamphetamine use, it’s a different story. San Diego County was identified as the “meth capital of the world” in the 1980s and 1990s in large part due to the proliferation of meth producing labs across the East County. Local elected officials and law enforcement struggled to keep up with the fallout. They established the Meth Strike Force in 1996 to address the problem. And while San Diego County is no longer the meth capital, the problem still persists in East County.
Meth related deaths are on the increase countywide, according to the Meth Strike Force’s 2020 Report Card. Last year in San Diego County, there were 546 meth-related deaths. La Mesa and El Cajon were ranked first and second in per-capita meth-related deaths over a 21-year period ending in 2018, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“Meth means death,” San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said at a November news conference announcing the results of the report card. “There is no sugar coating it, meth is destroying lives and families at a record pace here in San Diego County.” Jacob, who completes her tenure representing East County in January 2021, spearheaded efforts to create the strike force.
“The tragic deaths were unnecessary and a hundred percent avoidable and that’s the shame of it all,” she said. “My hope today is that someone hears us and takes that first step to treatment and recovery, because it is treatable.”
Meth Related Arrests and Hospitalizations
The difference in the number of misdemeanor and felony arrests and citations for methamphetamine in the East County between 2018 and 2019 vary by city. Lemon Grove had an increase from 121 in 2018 to 267 in 2019 or more than 120%. La Mesa experienced a decrease from 1,014 in 2018 to 544 in 2019 or more than 46%. El Cajon arrests increased from 538 in 2018 to 721 in 2019 or 34% over that time span. Santee went up more than 36%, from 211 in 2018 to 288 in 2019.
Data regarding hospital emergency department discharges for amphetamine dependence and misuse in the East County provided some encouraging news. The numbers were on a steady increase from 2009 and spiked in 2016, before continuing on a steady decline through 2018. For every 100,000 East County patients who were discharged from a hospital emergency room, fewer than 1,500 of them had an amphetamine dependence.
Meth Capital of the World
While the hotbed for meth manufacturing has shifted away from East County, it didn’t go far.
“The San Diego border with Mexico is ground zero for methamphetamine seizures. The extremely dangerous, high-quality methamphetamine smuggled from Mexico contributes, as we’ve heard, to more deaths in San Diego County than opioids,” Robert Brewer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, said.
Irma Contreras is a substance recovery counselor at the Vista Hill ParentCare Family Recovery Center in La Mesa who works with women trying to reclaim their lives from meth. She appeared at the news conference. “I am living proof that there is hope after the wreckage caused by using meth,” said Contreras, who has been drug-free for 18 year. “I was one of those who thought I could dabble in meth. I was not successful. It became my everything. Treatment does work.”
Director Nick Macchione of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency says there are people in the devastation of meth. “Every San Diegan has an opportunity to step up and help and we need that help,” Macchione said. “Speak up. Help get them into any one of our help lines. Don’t stay silent. Say no to meth.”
Anyone seeking treatment or who wants to help someone who is can contact the San Diego County Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240 or by calling 211. The Meth Hotline at (877) NO-2-METH can be used to report meth related crimes and remain anonymous. The Meth Strike Force for additional resources can be reached online at www.no2meth.org.