Midday on Skid Row, a steady stream of people filed into a small storefront on East Fourth Street. They were mostly heroin users, there to swap out dirty needles for clean ones. Forty-seven-year-old Edward Castillo said he sleeps in a tent nearby, in what’s known as Skid Row’s “heroin district.” But he doesn’t shoot heroin.
“I just use crystal meth,” he said. “I’ve been using crystal meth for about four years now.”
Mark Casanova, executive director of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, which runs this needle exchange and harm reduction center (where addicts can also get medical care and connect to recovery programs, if they choose), said Castillo is part of a growing trend.
“Meth has been definitely on the rise the last couple of years,” said Casanova. “It’s easy to manufacture, easy to get and it’s in the price range that people live in on Skid Row can actually afford.”
Three years ago, Casanova estimates, roughly 12 percent of the clients he saw here used meth. Today it’s about 30 percent.
Ironically, some of this rise can be traced to federal laws passed about a decade ago, limiting over-the-counter products containing the raw ingredients for methamphetamine, like certain sinus medications.
According to a DEA spokesman in Los Angeles, that paved the way for Mexican drug cartels to step in and corner the U.S. meth market. In the years since, the spokesman said, the cartels have industrialized production so efficiently they’ve created an oversupply. In other words, meth is cheap and plentiful. And lot of it ends up just over the border in California.
This week, San Diego County released a report showing a record number of meth overdose deaths in 2016. It’s difficult to find definitive statistics on meth use for Los Angeles County, but health experts say they’ve seen an increase.
Medical director and science officer for the L.A.’ County Health Department’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Control division, Gary Tsai, has also seen the increase in meth use. In the past few years, he said, the percentage of people admitted to county-affiliated drug treatment programs for meth ticked up from 15 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2015.
“Unfortunately, we’re never going to capture in treatment everyone who’s using and abusing methamphetamine,” Tsai said. “However…the more people we’re treating, we would assume that there is more use out there.”
What’s more certain is the dramatic rise in meth use in specific L.A. neighborhoods, like Skid Row.
Michael Marquesen, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Health Project, runs another clean needle exchange with several locations. He said that since 2015, meth use among his Skid Row clients went from about 11 percent to 18 percent. He’s also seen a dramatic increase in South L.A.
Historically, he said, the meth hotspot was Hollywood. “It was young people,” Marquesen said. “It was LGBT men.”
Edward Castillo, the 47-year-old who visited the Homeless Health Care L.A. exchange on Skid Row, doesn’t fit those categories. He started using meth about four years ago, and landed on Skid Row about the same time, because of the easy access to drugs.
“I would love to just have a regular life, you know just be a normie,” he says. “I would love to be clean.”
(Photo: Timothy Krause)