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Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego

Since 2000, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has conducted interviews in detention facilities throughout San Diego County and asked arrestees to partake in confidential and anonymous interviews. Data collected allows researchers and treatment facilities to analyze trends in local drug usage and tailor rehabilitation care.

Drug use among San Diego County arrestees reached a two-decade high in 2019. In most 2019 arrestees, meth showed up more than any other drug in the arrestees’ drug test results. According to the report released by SANDAG, 66% of women and 55% of men tested positive for meth. This shows a 10% increase in meth use for men and 3% for women from 2008-2009. SANDAG’s Criminal Justice Research Division reported that nearly 80% of male arrestees and 82% of female arrestees tested positive for at least one of the following drugs: marijuana, methamphetamines, opiates, cocaine/crack, and PCP.

San Diego Drug Arrests

Data summarizing the demographics of these meth-using arrestees in 2019 has surfaced showing that those arrested reported using meth for almost 15 years, using it before their 22nd birthday, and using more than 19 days in a row over the last 30 days. The surveys also found that about 36% of arrestees tested positive for combined drug use. Of these users, 83% admitted that they have been arrested at least once before in the past, and 65% reported being homeless in their lifetime.

Detainees who tested positive for a combination of drugs typically had meth or marijuana in their system. Of the users who tested positive for combined drug use, 79% had been homeless in their lifetimes, 59% were white, and 44% had been clinically diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Slightly over 25% of arrestees believed that they used a drug containing fentanyl, based on the effects that they had experienced from the drug. Over 20% of arrestees also reported that they had overdosed in the past and 56% of them reported having been administered naloxone (commonly known as Narcan) to respond to the effects of the overdose and help reverse the side effects of a drug overdose.

The Need For This Type of Research

Cynthia Burke, SANDAG’s director of research and program management, stated that “while the population of individuals booked into our facilities has changed over time, these statistics are sobering, and indicate the continued need to address underlying risks and the need to stop the revolving door of incarceration.” Burke is wise in advocating for more knowledge and understanding of arrestees, as treatment facilities can then apply this particular knowledge to combat drug abuse in specific locations and among certain populations. Findings from 2019 support the need for this research:

  • Nearly 20% of arrestees claimed they have been approached to bring drugs across the border.
  • Up to 90% of the people arrested said that marijuana was the first drug they had tried. Some users reported that they began using marijuana by the age of 15, roughly five years earlier than most other drugs.
  • Over 60% of arrestees from this study had tried meth and 84% of those users reported using it within the last year.
  • Over 30% of arrestees admitted that they had committed a crime to support a drug habit.

Juvenile Arrests in San Diego

The Criminal Justice (CJ) Bulletin of “2017 Juvenile Arrestee Drug Use in the San Diego Region 3” collected information through interviews with juvenile arrestees about:

  • Self-reported history of illicit drug use
  • Urinalysis result trends over time
  • Perceptions of how harmful drugs are and how easy they are to get
  • Illicit use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • Previous drug treatment and perception of the current need for treatment
  • Risk factors, including home environment, mental health, and school attendance
  • Criminal and other risky behavior

From these 2017 interviews, 92% of the youth arrestees reported trying an illicit substance (alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, crack, powder cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or ecstasy). Most of these juvenile arrestees also reported recent use of at least one of these substances (92%) in the last year and (82%) in the last month. Of the 98 arrestees that reported using one of these substances, the average amount of drugs tried was 3.9 on a range from 1-8, The female arrestees interviewed had used many more substances than the males; 4.4 versus 3.7.

The most frequently tried substances, among youth arrestees, were marijuana (91%), alcohol (90%), and tobacco (74%). More than half (55%) of the arrestees specifically reported binge drinking alcohol, which was defined as five or more drinks on one occasion. A quarter of the juvenile arrestees also reported trying other substances like synthetic marijuana (a mix of herbs and synthetic chemicals sometimes referred to as “spice”) and 24% of these arrestees reported trying hallucinogens such as mushrooms. At the end of the spectrum, 10% of arrestees tried inhalants, 7% tried PCP, 1% Ketamine, and 1% GHB.

Marijuana remained the drug of choice for youths at Juvenile Hall, with 45% testing positive at the time of the interview and 56% reporting it was the first substance they had ever tried, which is high compared to 25% for alcohol. Half of the youth in Juvenile Hall had never tried meth, 11% of youth were positive for meth, and 40% of those interviewed had used it in the past month. Sadly, 90% of the youth interviewed said it was “VERY EASY” or “EASY” to obtain meth for themselves. Additionally, one in every two youths interviewed reported having abused prescription or over-the-counter drugs. None of the youth arrestees who tried heroin reported that they switched to this “street drug” after first using prescription opiates. Up to 70% of youth arrestees said that these drugs were “VERY EASY” or “EASY” to obtain.

The CJ Bulletin’s demographic reporting also showed that 83% of arrested youths had a history of truancy, a parent with justice system contact (48%), or parents that abuse alcohol and/or other drugs (39%). Many arrestees came from families that had been contacted by Child Protective Services (32%), didn’t live with a parent (23%), or had suicidal thoughts (19%). A little over a third of youth arrestees also reported they had brought a weapon to school and 25% said that they had obtained a gun before.

San Diego County Substance Abuse Monitoring Program

In 2003, the juvenile component of the nationally-funded ADAM (Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring) program was discontinued, but local funding was secured, enabling this important data collection effort to continue in the region. This new program is known as the San Diego County Substance Abuse Monitoring (SAM) program. All of the data (percentages and raw numbers) captured through the juvenile interviews and urinalysis for the past five years (2013-2017) are available online.

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we have a phenomenal staff to support clients of all criminal backgrounds; no background is discriminated against from getting the help that they need to combat addiction. Our team stays up-to-date on the latest research to better serve and support our clients from all walks of life.

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depressed man in trauma-focused therapymagnifying glass showing the effects of drugs on the brain