Local meth-related deaths on the rise

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SAN DIEGO — Increasing numbers of people have been losing their lives to methamphetamine in the San Diego area in recent years, according to research data released Thursday.

In 2015, there were 311 local deaths related to the narcotic, the most recorded in a single year in the area, according to the county Methamphetamine Strike Force. The figure also represents an 82 percent increase as compared with 2011, when 171 such deaths were reported.

“The numbers are heading in the wrong direction,” said Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors. “More and more residents are dying from meth use, and we must step up our fight against this killer.”

The county has a long and sad history with methamphetamine abuse and the litany of problems it spawns. While the region is no longer considered the “meth capital of the world,” as it was 30 years ago, and little of the drug is produced locally, there is more of it available, and it is more potent and cheaper than ever, according to local officials.

Thursday, most of the methamphetamine in San Diego County comes from Mexico, where the highly addictive and deadly substance is manufactured before being smuggled across the international border by Mexican drug cartels, law enforcement authorities report.

The increased availability and potency of the narcotic have contributed to more deaths, more emergency-room visits and more problems for individual users, their families and local communities, according to the methamphetamine task force.

Over the past six years, the county Medical Examiner’s Office has noted a continued increase in the number of methamphetamine-related deaths, especially among middle-aged and older people.

Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas attributed the negative trend to chronic abusers with poor health habits coming into contact with stronger, purer versions of the drug.

“Some meth users have used the drug for years, but others tried it later in life and paid with their lives,” Lucas said. “Another consistent finding is that meth-related deaths are spread across the region — among men and women, among all ethnic groups and occupations.”

According to 2015 data, the majority of methamphetamine-related deaths (178, or 57 percent) involved people between the ages of 45 and 64.

In addition, the number of emergency-room discharges due to the drug skyrocketed between 2011 and 2015, from 3,773 to 12,594, a 234 percent increase.

Furthermore, the percentage of adult arrestees who tested positive for methamphetamine jumped 19 percentage points during the same period, from 30 to 49 percent, and arrests for sales and possession of the drug jumped from 4,843 in 2011 to 6,849 in 2015.

Though the health threats to abusers are severe and potentially fatal, the negative impacts to the cardiovascular system improve if a person stops using methamphetamine, according to David Shaw, a cardiologist and director of medical education at Scripps Mercy Hospital.

Shaw analyzed his hospital’s data from 2009 to 2014, finding that increases in heart problems associated with abuse of the drug matched the Methamphetamine Strike Force’s upward trend in related emergency-room activity.

“I noticed that meth-associated heart-failure rates seemed to be very high at Scripps Mercy,” Shaw said. “I was able to compare health among our heart patients with meth-use histories and found a wonderful piece of news — if someone with a meth-use history actually stops, their heart health improves.”

Shaw’s research also showed that brain functioning improves and is restored after about two years of abstinence from the substance.

To help people defeat their drug addictions, the county funds residential and outpatient treatment programs across the region.

Addicts or those who wish to anonymously report methamphetamine-related crime or other drug activity are encouraged to call the county’s Meth Hotline at (877) NO-2-METH or visit no2meth.org.

Treatment is also available by calling the Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240, or by calling 211.

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