Methamphetamine drug use, and the inherent problems that come with it has been a long-time scourge for those living in the Sylmar community. Residents on the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper’s Facebook page have described sections of Foothill Boulevard as a “corridor” for meth users “biking to RVs” to purchase and use the drug at all hours of the day. They also say meth use has been a problem in the community “for decades.”
Meth is cheap to make, easy to obtain and highly addictive. The mental devastation can be obvious, but the physical deterioration even more so. Longtime users can have severe dental problems (tooth decay and gum disease), skin problems including acne and sores, and dramatic weight loss to where a person looks frail or gaunt. Because of that, meth users often look older than they are.
LAPD Detective Michael Tuccillo has worked for the Mission Hills Narcotics Enforcement Detail the past several years, which includes covering the Sylmar community. He has seen his share of the impact from methamphetamine use, and methamphetamine fatalities.
And lately, “I have observed a large increase in methamphetamine on the streets [of Sylmar] and an even more noticeable increase in opiates (heroin and fentanyl),” Tuccillo said in an email to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper.
A 15-year LAPD veteran, Tuccillo makes it clear he is offering his opinions “based on my experiences as a police officer and in the field as a narcotics investigator,” and is not providing an official position of the department.
But he also described Foothill Boulevard as one of the “main corridors” for methamphetamine use in the Sylmar community.
“There are dozens, if not hundreds, of homeless living in the area…They live in the numerous RVs you can see on the side of the road, as well as the freeway embankments. Often times the homeless walk around so high, it looks like a scene from the ‘Walking Dead’ television show,” the detective said.
A recently released report by the county Department of Public Health supports Tuccillo’s observations.
Methamphetamine use in LA County has “increased dramatically” since the beginning of the pandemic, health officials said. And according to data collected by the county’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Control team, there was a 52% increase in accidental drug overdose deaths between March 2020 to December 2020 – the first ten months of the pandemic — compared to that same time period in 2019.
“In 2020 alone, there were 1,389 accidental overdose deaths linked to meth use, which equates to an average of 3.8 meth-related deaths per day, all of which were entirely preventable,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s Department of Public Health.
The study was broken down into various regions of the county. The report indicated that Sylmar is a “hot spot” for the increased number of accidental overdose deaths reported.
Tuccillo said you typically won’t find meth “labs,” where the drug is made for sale or distribution, in this Northeast Valley community. “I have not run across any in Sylmar,” he said.
But there are meth “houses” where people congregate to buy or use the drug.
Meth “houses,” Tuccillo said, can be “large properties where somebody elderly lives and meth users will latch on to it. Or in older neighborhoods where a family member inherits the property from the people there before, and if there is a drug user in the house their friends and multiple other people ‘hang out’.”
“The next thing you know, [the property] is covered with trash, and there are a lot of old cars and RVs out front — that kind of stuff. And in Sylmar, the properties are just bigger, as opposed to in Panorama City. There are some big lots there, too, but they’re more congested so you don’t see as much there.”
Tuccillo also said he doesn’t know how to explain the growing number of people noted in the county study, including preteens and teenagers, who are using meth.
“It is hard to answer this question,” he said. “In the past, many of these users would be housed in the jail system. [But] since the crimes were reclassified, there is a significantly larger number of narcotics users on the street.”
The detective also anecdotally opined that “much of the homeless population is using and/or addicted to some form of narcotic (usually methamphetamine or heroin),” which is another reason why “it is difficult to get a baseline.”
Why Meth is So Addictive and Dangerous
Methamphetamine is defined as “a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant.” People take meth by smoking it, swallowing (pills), snorting it or injecting the powder that has been dissolved in water or alcohol.
There is an even more potent form of the drug known as crystal meth or “ice,” which can have a rock or glass-like appearance rather than a powder or an oily brown substance. Depending on the amount, an “ice high” can be felt for up to 24 hours.
“When people use drugs, it results in a certain amount of dopamine release — the reward pathways to the brain — to make people feel good. That’s the ‘high,’” said Dr. Gary Tsai, director of the county’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Control.
“Methamphetamine’s ‘high’ is on the higher end of any drug. The meth ‘high’ can give you energy and give you confidence, and make people feel empowered. But after you use meth, there’s a ‘crash.’”
Tsai said your brain can quickly become accustomed to the “abnormally high” levels of dopamine induced by using meth.
“There’s no way a normal brain can maintain that level of dopamine,” he said. “So, when you ‘crash,’ it makes you feel bad, similar to how when you withdraw from other drugs.
“A meth ‘crash’ is pretty steep. And there aren’t medications like there are for opioids. We have several FDA-approved medications. We don’t have medications for meth. There are numerous studies looking at medications to treat it, but we don’t yet have anything approved.”
In addition to the outward physical destruction, the doctor said meth usage can cause a lot of psychiatric effects, which can cause additional problems — “psychosis, paranoia” — as well as medical problems with the heart or strokes.
“Anything a stimulant does, methamphetamine does it at a higher intensity,” Tsai said. “It’s as damaging to the body in a number of different ways, as it is damaging to the mind.”
An Ongoing Battle
The county has embarked on a new campaign warning of the dangers of methamphetamine use, which includes public service announcements in English and Spanish placed on local airwaves and social media channels, and printed material placed on billboards and bus shelters, directing the public to visit the website www.MethFreeLACounty.org for more information regarding prevention and treatment options.
Tuccillo hopes the campaign can help reduce the growing numbers of meth users and help save lives.
But it is an ongoing battle.
The detective points out that “gangs typically control most of the narcotics sold in an area,” and the higher the level of narcotics trafficking the higher the level of gang/cartel involvement. Gangs “also control the violence and otherwise chaos that might occur if there was no street level control,” he said.
“There are individual rehabilitation locations that can aid users. However, without the teeth of the previous felony charges, users are significantly less likely to self-enroll causing the surge in users and the homeless population.”
It doesn’t make his job any easier.
“The problem is much larger than any local entity can fix,” Tuccillo said.