The Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness tackled drug use among the homeless with the topic “Street Drugs and Homelessness: A Devastating Combination,” at its January 25 community meeting on Zoom.
The PPTFH provides a community service by holding periodic meetings to inform residents about the nonprofit’s efforts to help the homeless who make their way to Pacific Palisades. (The meetings can be heard at pptfh.org.)
Marrisa Axelrod, director of Community Nursing for the People Concern in Santa Monica, spoke first about drug use and the current models available for helping those with addictions.
She said that about 30 percent of homeless deaths are drug overdoses and two thirds of these are from methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system.
“The effects of meth are long-term and the recovery from it is extremely challenging,” Axelrod said.
Meth is regarded as one of the most dangerous drugs in our society. Research shows the average lifespan of a regular meth user is about seven years.
Meth and crystal meth create a false sense of well-being and energy. Meth users report feeling a rush of energy and euphoria and often will act impulsively and dangerously. Meth decreases the feeling of hunger (users often go for days without eating) and sleep patterns are seriously affected, with users sometimes going for days without sleep.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, methamphetamine use has many other negative consequences, including extreme weight loss, addiction, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”), intense itching (leading to skin sores from scratching), anxiety, changes in brain structure and function, confusion, memory loss, violent behavior, paranoia and hallucinations.
After the initial high wears off, meth users experience what’s known as a “crash” and they feel weak, sick, depressed and in pain.
Axelrod said that it may be difficult to tell the difference between someone who is mentally ill and someone who is having a drug episode.
The long-term impact of meth use can cause irreversible damage and “it could take even a year later for the brain to start feeling better,” Axelrod said.
She acknowledged that healthcare providers and law enforcement are seeing a higher rate of overdoses in the homeless right now, not only involving meth, but also heroin, fentanyl, alcohol and marijuana.
According to medical reports, meth users are at a great risk for heart problems. The drug damages vessels in the brain, which can lead to stroke. The liver and kidneys can be severely damaged. After long-term abuse, damage in the brain is similar to complications found with Alzehimer’s, stroke and epilepsy.
Axelrod stressed that it’s important to try and get a client into a [rehab] bed, and that the latest approach dealing with drug users is “harm reduction” — ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.
The National Harm Reduction Coalition (HSRC) is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.
The following are principals that NHRC employ: 1) accepts that licity and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore them or condemn them; 2) understands that drug use is complex, multi-facted phenomenon that encompasses behaviors from abstinence to severe use; 3) establishes a quality of life, not necessarily a cessation of all drug use; 4) ensure that people who use drugs and have a history of drug use, have a voice in the creation of programs; 5) calls for non-judgmental provision of services; 6) recognizes the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination and other social inequalities affect people’s vulnerability for dealing with drug-related harm; 7) affirms people who use drugs as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use. (https://harmreduction.org/hrc2/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NHRC-PDF-Principles_Of_Harm_Reduction.pdf)
During the PPTFH meeting, Veronica de la Cruz, an L.A. neighborhood prosecutor, explained that there are difficulties in prosecuting a meth user.
“The laws are changing,” she said, explaining that drug possession, which used to be a felony, is now a misdemeanor and that the new district attorney general, George Gascon, is not prosecuting misdemeanors.
She noted that a “wobbler” crime straddles both a felony and a misdemeanor, and meth used to fall in that category, but “now it’s a misdemeanor.”
De La Cruz argued that Prop. 47, which passed in 2014 and was co-authored by Gascon, undermines drug courts and rehabilitation programs supported by justice system oversight — by making the possession of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin a misdemeanor. (That proposition also reclassified the following crimes from felonies to misdemeanors: grand theft to under $950, shoplifting under $950, receiving stolen property under $950, writing bad checks under $950, and forging checks under $950.)
“When it was a felony, they had a probation officer and were supervised,” De La Cruz said. “There’s little incentive to accept help when there’s no jail time.”
Other legislation which may make it harder to incentivize those on drugs to reach out for services includes AB 1950 (restricts the period of probation for a misdemeanor to no longer than one year). “I could get a three-year probation, now it’s only a hook,” the neighborhood prosecutor said. She noted that AB-3234 is also a new law (authorizing a judge in the superior court in which a misdemeanor is being prosecuted to offer misdemeanor diversion to a defendant over the objection of a prosecuting attorney).
De La Cruz explained that prosecution cases are shifting from punitive to rehabilitative and noted that one reason the PPTFH has been so successful is because there’s an incentive for homeless people to accept help.
De La Cruz wishes that state legislators would talk with law enforcement about how to create more effective legislation, such as making more stringent penalties for those selling, manufacturing or trafficking in drug use.
At the end of the town hall meeting, a viewer asked: “Should we view addiction as a public health or justice issue or both?”
De La Cruz said, “If we could criminalize sales and distributions and the making of drugs more heavily, that would be helpful. Given the way the laws are moving, there is not a lot we can do for possession.”
Sharon Browning, one of the PPTFH co-presidents, said “But we need laws to protect us. What would it take to get that shift?”
De La Cruz replied, “A serious conversation with our lawmakers. Give prosecutors more discretion. We also want to protect the community.”