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Meth Is Making A Comeback In California – And It’s Hitting The San Joaquin Valley Hard

Fresno County Sheriff's Office
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 8-month investigation in Fresno and Modesto.

The opioid crisis has been a national focus for years, but new state data show another family of drugs has 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, of course, 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.

“It’s bad, and it always has been,” says 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. today 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 and Enforcement Agency data show 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,” says Pennal. 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.

Credit California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard
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.

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 says. County data show nearly 40 percent of all clients in county-sponsored treatment programs report using the drug.

Credit California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard
In 2017, Kern County's fatal amphetamine overdose rate ranked fifth highest in the state, behind only very rural, sparsely populated counties in far Northern California.

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

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

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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