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DEA Agents See Rise In Meth Use On San Francisco's Streets

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- While concerns over the opioid epidemic have occupied a great deal of attention from the government and the media in the past year, another dangerous drug appears to be making a comeback.

While the focus of drug policymakers has been on the ugly effects of opiates, crystal meth use appears to be on the uptick as the drug floods the market in Northern California.

Chris Nielsen, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's San Francisco Division, says meth is back after having tapered off for years. After the government banned the over-the-counter sales of epinephrine in 2006, meth labs in individual houses have become rare.

Now, as depicted in the popular television show "Breaking Bad," the drug is being produced in superlabs owned by Mexican drug gangs across the border.

"It's some of the highest purity that we've ever seen. Somewhere in the ballpark of 97 percent pure," explained Nielsen. "Prices are down and Mexican cartels are flooding this state with their poison."

Meth can be transported as a liquid or a solid. Sometimes smugglers use unusual containers, such as in a recent DEA bust where some 500 pounds of the drug was found hidden inside Disney figurines.

In just the last few years, the DEA's San Francisco office says it has seized a marked increase of meth. In 2015, the agency took 1,085 pounds off the street. So far this year, the office is approaching 1,600 pounds of meth seized with another month to go.

DEA officials say the availability of meth has made it much less expensive and thus, much more accessible to folks who might not have that much money.

That may explain why more people can be seen walking the streets of San Francisco exhibiting the herky jerky movements common to users who are "tweaking."

Dr. Barry Zevin is the medical director for the San Francisco Public Health Department's homeless outreach team.

"Over the past five years, what we've seen is that methamphetamine has become the number one stimulant used by the patients I see," said Zevin.

He says homeless people use the stimulant so they can stay up at night to watch the few belongings they own and also to protect their friends. But the increased use of the drug could explain the street violence that has been associated with homeless meth users.

"Methamphetamine use is really fueling that," said Zevin. "People are having problems with essentially losing touch with reality and feeling paranoid, feeling like people are about to hurt them and that is leading to violence."

Homeless man Jeffrey Suggs told KPIX he has not been driven to violence by meth, though he has had problems with the drug.

"I've had my issues with it. I've never attacked anyone," said Suggs.

But Suggs does have a friend who was murdered by someone who was high on meth.

"He got assaulted. He didn't go to the hospital and they found him dead in his apartment," said Suggs.

Zevin tells KPIX that more than half the homeless people who are arrested for a psychiatric hold tested positive for meth.

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