LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles Police Department on Friday revealed the results of a two-year investigation into the narcotics trade in LA's infamous Skid Row neighborhood: 50 arrests and hundreds of pounds of various drugs seized, including 46,000 fentanyl pills and 857 pounds of methamphetamine.
"Meth is so readily available now, and the price has gone down," said LAPD narcotics detective R. Quezada, who declined to give his first name. "You get it for $1,300 a pound." He added: "High-grade marijuana is more expensive than meth," a startling fact given that marijuana is legal for recreational use in California.
Of the 50 arrests made over the last two years, 37 have been charged in state court, 13 in federal court. Some suspects operated as part of a gang, others as individuals. On Monday, a federal grand jury indicted three people — Devon "Woody" Trimble, Angela Mathis and Cynthia Diane McIntyre — on charges of dealing crack cocaine on Skid Row, though authorities were eager to point out these defendants live far from where they ply their trade. Trimble lives in Palmdale, about a 70-mile drive; Mathis lives in Gardena, about 14 miles away.
“This investigation showed us there are people living in the suburbs, some with violent criminal histories, who wake up every day and make the conscious decision to commute to the downtown area and sell dangerous and highly addictive drugs on the streets,” said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Bill Bodner in a statement. “Their target customers in many cases are people experiencing homelessness."
Quezada agreed. "They come into the area, prey on the homeless, and then they leave," he said, adding two of the defendants are part of two different family-run organizations, each with three generations of drug dealers controlling territory in Skid Row. "They run certain blocks. They’ve got shifts. It’s like clockwork."
For decades, Skid Row — a roughly 50-square-block area in downtown Los Angeles — has contained one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the United States. The last time the city conducted its homeless count, in 2019, it found more than 2,700 people sleeping on the streets or in vehicles on Skid Row. An additional 2,000 slept in shelters. This past April, U.S. District Judge David Carter ordered the city to house everyone on Skid Row within 180 days, though a Ninth Circuit panel has since overruled the order.
Nearly everyone who works to help people on Skid Row agrees there's been a marked change in the atmosphere in recent years. Known as the "Skid Row doctor," Susan Partovi has treated people living in the neighborhood for 17 years. She's now the medical director for Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, and helps run the Center for Harm Reduction.
"Before, people were staying in the alleyway, doing heroin, minding their own business," said Partovi. "Now they’re yelling at people, they’re angry, they’re walking into traffic, they're talking to people who aren’t there. A large portion of the homeless have become addicted to meth and are acting, for lack of a better word, crazy."
A recently published book by Sam Quinones details how the formulation of methamphetamine has changed in the last decade. The market, once dominated by meth made from ephedrine, has been taken over by meth made in Mexico derived from a chemical called phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P. Experts say the new meth affects heavy users in often drastic ways, leading some to experience symptoms akin to schizophrenia.
"It’s taking less time for people to end up with psychotic symptoms," said Ken Vick, who runs a drug treatment center in Kansas City, Missouri. "There’s something different with this meth that’s coming up from Mexico now. It’s hard to call it meth. It’s a form of amphetamine. It’s not the meth of old. It's something different."
The meth seized on Skid Row was especially pure, according to DEA agent Mike Davis, who's worked on the investigation for two years. "The purity is so high," he said. "Since I’ve been here in Los Angeles, I don’t recall seizing any meth that’s been less than 90% pure. Most of the time, it’s been in the high 90s." He added: "It comes from Mexico, makes its way into LA, which is considered a transshipment point. Then it heads to other retail areas throughout the country."
More than 100,000 Americans died form drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, a nearly 30% increase from the previous period of time. Overdose deaths have more than doubled since 2015 and now account for more deaths than gun violence and car crashes combined. Much of that increase can be attributed to the spread of fentanyl, a highly potent and exceedingly dangerous synthetic opioid. Fentanyl often makes its way into other drugs, like heroin and even methamphetamine, without users knowing it.
Partovi said she didn't think the arrests would make much of a difference on Skid Row.
"You put a seller behind bars, and there’s another seller," she said. "Criminalization has been proven to not really work. If you want to really address the issue, let’s start with the person who’s using the drug. They need a place to live safely and use safely, so when they are ready to quit, they’re not in survival mode."