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Sacramento County is so notorious for meth that makers of "Crystal Darkness," a documentary, visited the county jail in 2008 to talk to addicted inmates.

Editorial: To fight meth, more focus on treatment

Published: Sunday, Jul. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Drug fads come and go in California. But not methamphetamine. This highly addictive, widely available, dangerous drug has been a 20-year scourge that shows no sign of abating in Sacramento and the Central Valley.

How addictive? A Sacramento County undercover agent told The Bee's editorial board that people get addicted "so fast" and some get so desperate that they will fry their own urine in a pan to extract meth crystals.

How available? It comes across the border from superlabs in Mexico and is sold by street dealers, most often gang-related, for $20 to $30 for a "teener" (1/16 of a gram) or $40 to $80 for a gram.

How dangerous? Counties are on the front lines of seeing people with psychiatric emergencies. In Sacramento County, Health and Human Services Director Sherri Heller points out that "meth is the single most impactful drug causing psychiatric emergencies."

She continues: "There is so much brain trauma with meth." Those who are "tweaking" – using meth day after day – exhibit poor judgment, strange sleeping patterns, agitation, confusion, anxiety, paranoia, sometimes violence.

Not surprisingly, where there is meth, there is also theft; addicts steal to feed their habit, driving up burglaries, fraud and robberies.

The statistics are daunting. Forty percent of men arrested in Sacramento test positive for meth, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That compares with 13 percent in Denver and less than 1 percent in New York, Chicago and Atlanta. And the numbers in Sacramento have been increasing, up from 30 percent in 2009.

A handful of recent reports in The Bee are only the tip of the iceberg: A man at a Roseville business who refused to pay his bill and threatened an employee was found in possession of meth. An armed man who confronted a parishioner at Sacramento's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, taking his cellphone and wallet, was "experiencing a mental episode" as a result of using meth. A woman driving under the influence of meth ran over and killed a 6-year-old boy walking to school and injured his 8-year-old brother.

The toll on children can be horrific. Stories like this one in El Dorado County are not uncommon: Four adults were arrested at a meth lab and three children, ages 2 to 7, were placed with Child Protective Services.

Meth reaches across the demographic landscape: urban and rural, men and women, white and black, Latino and Asian. Across the board, experts who deal with the effects of meth agree that we need a three-pronged approach: prevention, treatment and disrupting the market.

All came under hard times during the Great Recession. Police and sheriff's departments downsized or shuttered their narcotics units.

Voter-approved Proposition 36 in 2000 diverted those convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses to drug treatment, but the money ran out after five years.

So we wait until meth users commit crimes that send them to drug court. There, those with a long history of addiction do get an effective program – frequent drug testing, treatment, supervision, returns to court on a weekly basis, graduated sanctions (including jail) for relapses and rewards for good behavior.

The Sacramento County drug court serves 75 to 80 people at a time – and would like to expand to 100.

Heller notes that getting people into treatment early is important to prevent irreversible brain damage.

But we should not wait either for psychiatric emergencies or for people to commit crimes to treat them. Heller believes we need a "ZIP code" approach, with highly localized, neighborhood-based solutions – from Galt to Rancho Cordova to Rancho Murieta.

With attention and focus on front-end strategies that work, Californians can take on this 20-year scourge – a quality of life issue for us all and a life-and-death issue for far too many.

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