A new wave of extra strong methamphetamine is hitting San Diego, made in Mexican "super labs."
10News rode along with San Diego County’s Methamphetamine Strike Force, San Diego County Sheriff's Department, La Mesa Police Department, San Diego County Probation Department, San Diego County Behavioral Health Services and McAllister Institute during "Operation Tip the Scale."
The one-day operation was conducted in the City of Lemon Grove, La Mesa and parts of unincorporated Rancho San Diego.
Division Chief Jason Druxman with the County of San Diego Probation Department has done all 20 operations in the last seven years.
“It’s about checking up on offenders that have drug related offenses,” Druxman said.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells says San Diego County needs operations like this more than ever because of the growing grip of meth.
“It used to be that crystal meth was made by individuals, a lot of time in trailer parks and out of the way rural places," Wells said. "Drug cartels from Mexico decided that they would get involved in that business. They started building large, manufacturing 'super labs.'"
Wells said the cartels are making meth 90% pure, but two-thirds the price; stronger and cheaper.
Besides being mayor, Wells also works part-time in the emergency room doing psychiatric evaluations. He says he's seen the effects the new meth has on people who use it.
"People are dying," Wells said. “With this level of purity, you’re having a significant number of people who become grossly psychotic, just hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there, very paranoid, delusional.”
According to SANDAG, in 2015, 49% of adult arrestees –arrested for any charge --tested positive for methamphetamine, an all-time high since SANDAG began tracking this data more than two decades ago.
Deaths linked to meth are also at a record high in San Diego County. From 2008 to 2014, the number of people in the region who died due to meth increased by 90% – from 140 in 2008 to 262 in 2014, according to the most recent report from the County’s Medical Examiner.
"San Diego is more affected than most states," Wells said. "Why? Because we're right on the border."
Mike Barletta, Manager of Operations for Transit Enforcement with San Diego MTS, says they hope Tip the Scale can make trips safer for people who ride the trolley.
"People are amped up, acting up, acting out," Barletta said. "Targeting slightly the trolley lines, we are going to see a reduction in the crime rate around the trolley lines."
Because the trolley can be a hotspot for drugs, Druxman says they focused a lot of their officers there. He showed 10News some of the items they confiscated from people arrested during their sweep.
"So this is a picture right here," Druxman said. "You got gloves, you got a beanie with [eye] holes cut out, right? And you got a gun, an airsoft gun, but it looks like a real gun. You got drugs."
10news also saw how it affects families. One man was high when police checked on him inside his home. He is on probation. The house was a mess and several of his grandkids were playing in the front room. Social workers from San Diego County's Drug Endangered Children Program were called out to the house to interview the children and take them to a safe place.
The man agreed to talk to 10News as he was being arrested if we didn't use his name or show his face.
"The drugs were never around the kids. We don't do it in front of the kids," he said. "So but, we shouldn't do it at all."
When asked "Are you high right now?" he replied "Uh, no."
In all, law enforcement talked to 3,076 people. They arrested 28 people, 6 of which were felony arrests and 22 of which were misdemeanor arrests. They also cleared 29 warrants.
But there is one thing different about this bust.
Everyone they arrest is brought back to the command post in handcuffs; there, they can either choose to go to jail or to get help.
Linda Bridgeman-Smith works with the Health and Human Services Agency and was on site to talk to prisoners, wipe their tears, and give advice.
"Really be honest with you about what's best for you so that this doesn't keep happening," Bridgeman-Smith told one man she was counseling about entering drug rehabilitation.
Tip the Scale does get the bad guys, but it focuses on giving the ones who want help treatment instead of jail time.
"What happens when they get out? Did you do anything to keep them out once they get out?" Druxman said.
Lieutenant Christopher May with the San Diego Sheriff's Department said “We can’t arrest our way out of the drug addiction and the drug abuse problem. Tip the Scale is really geared toward tipping our communities away from that drug use and abuse.”
Terrence Butler was on probation for assault with a deadly weapon. Officers found him with drugs and alcohol, which violates his probation, and arrested him.
After talking with Bridgeman-Smith, he accepted help.
"I'm lucky I got a second chance. Lucky I got a second chance," Butler said.
Advisors with the McAlister Institute and the San Diego County Behavioral Health Services also spoke with 25 people about treatment.
Five others like Butler opted for rehab.
They were assessed and found to be eligible for immediate drug treatment. Officers transported these offenders directly from the command post to a local treatment facility.
"Today is a bad day," Butler said. "But maybe could be good, you know? Yeah."
After Tip the Scale Operations, the Meth Strike Force Hotline typically sees a 50-percent jump in calls from residents who are either reporting crime or seeking drug treatment.
Residents throughout the county are urged to report meth-related crimes or seek information about treatment options by calling 1-877-NO-2-METH (1-877-662-6384). You can also reach out by going online.