Pubdate: Fri, 15 Oct 2004
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2004 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Hepatitis)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Poverty and Cartels a Potent Mix in Central Valley

FRESNO - The nation's capital of intravenous drug use is not New York or 
Miami, not Chicago or Detroit -- but Fresno.

It is an unlikely distinction for a city of fewer than 500,000 people in 
the heart of one of the nation's richest agricultural regions.

The percentage of people shooting up heroin and other drugs in Fresno is 
nearly three times the national average, fueled by a boom in 
methamphetamine use, according to a study issued last month.

"This town is so full of meth," said Amy Wilson, 28, who was ordered into 
rehab after her daughter, now 3 1/2 months old, tested positive for 
methamphetamine at birth.

"My grasp on reality was gone," she said. She described drug use in the 
Central Valley as "a cancer."

Law enforcement agencies and treatment counselors say they are overwhelmed 
by the scope of the problem, which is compounded by HIV and hepatitis C 
infections that come from sharing needles.

The Fresno area has become home to Mexican drug cartels that operate in its 
rural expanses, where the farm chemicals used to make meth are readily 
available and the noxious fumes are less easily detected. According to a 
2001 estimate by the Drug Enforcement Administration, 80 percent of the 
country's meth comes from the cartels.

Part of the problem in the Fresno area is also poverty, said Samuel 
Friedman, a research fellow at the National Development and Research 
Institutes in New York and primary author of the study in last month's 
Journal of Urban Health.

Fresno County, where farmworkers get paid low seasonal wages, is one of the 
poorest counties in the nation. More than 20 percent of its residents -- an 
estimated 165,000 people -- live in poverty, according to census estimates, 
and the per capita income is just $15,495 a year.

In the study, Fresno was found to have 173 intravenous drug users for every 
10,000 people; the national average is 60 per 10,000 people. Three other 
urban areas within 200 miles also made it into the top 10: San Francisco, 
Stockton-Lodi and Bakersfield.

It is a problem that has been costly for the government. Fresno County 
spends $20 million a year on drug-treatment programs that served more than 
9,000 people in 2002, and the programs are straining to meet demand.

"Now at least we have a waiting list," said Dennis Koch, administrator of 
Fresno County's Alcohol and Drug Program. "Before, we used to not have 
these programs. There was nothing to wait for."

Meanwhile, the number of addicts who shoot up with dirty needles has placed 
a heavy burden on public health. A recent Fresno County study found that 75 
percent of the area's injection-drug users had hepatitis C, compared with 2 
percent of the general population. The county had 251 new HIV infections 
last year, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.
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