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This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center 
California Northern and Eastern Districts Drug Threat Assessment 
January 2001


Methamphetamine has become, without question, the most significant drug threat in Northern California. Methamphetamine is cheap and available in large urban areas as well as in smaller rural communities. According to the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), counties south and east of the San Francisco Bay Area have become a major hub for the production and distribution of methamphetamine. Drug trafficking groups operating in California supply much of the methamphetamine used in the United States.


According to data from the California Alcohol and Drug Data System (CADDS), treatment center admissions in the counties of the Northern and Eastern Districts fell between 1998 and 1999 (see Chart 1). CADDS admissions for primary methamphetamine/amphetamine use more than tripled between 1993 and 1998-1999 in the five-county Bay Area. In San Francisco, the number in treatment for primary methamphetamine abuse in fiscal year (FY) 1998 was 1,140. This number is up by 19 percent from FY1997 and has more than doubled since FY1992.

Chart 1. Treatment Admissions, All Drugs,
Northern California, FY1998-1999

Chart comparing FY1998 to FY1999 treatment admissions for all drugs in Northern California.

   1998    1999

Source: State of California,  Health and Human Services Agency, Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, CADDS County-Level Report, April 2000.

Similarly, Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) methamphetamine ED mentions fluctuated during 1993-1997, then declined steeply during 1998 and the first half of 1999 (see Chart 2). According to John A. Newmeyer of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics in San Francisco, in 1997 and 1998, San Francisco had the highest rate of all DAWN cities in "speed" mentions per 100,000 population. Methamphetamine ED mentions fell to 4.9 percent of all drug mentions in 1998, compared with 7.5 percent in 1997, 6.6 percent in 1996, and 6.3 percent in late 1995. A possible reason for this decline is that fewer individuals were part of the ED populations since they had entered abuse treatment programs.

Chart 2. Emergency Department Mentions, All Drugs,
 San Francisco, 1991-1998

Chart comparing Emergency Department mentions for all drugs in Northern California for years 1991 through 1998.
Methamphetamine      Cocaine      Heroin/Morphine    Marijuana/Hashish

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network Annual Medical Examiner Data 1998.

Arrests in San Francisco between 1993 and 1997 in the category dominated by methamphetamine showed percentage increases from year to year: 4, 12, 26, and 5 percent respectively. These arrestees were mostly Caucasian males. Sacramento and San Jose are the two Northern California cities included in Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program collection. In Sacramento, 27 percent of males and 32 percent of female arrestees tested positive for methamphetamine in 1999. In San Jose, the respective percentages were 24 and 31.

Crystal methamphetamine or "ice" is a purer form of methamphetamine (averaging 90 percent purity) created by refining the extraction process. Abuse of ice is largely confined to ethnic Asian groups and does not appear to be spreading to other ethnic populations.

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The San Francisco Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that methamphetamine is readily available throughout the region. In addition, the DEA Sacramento District Office and the Resident Offices in Fresno, Bakersfield, Oakland, and San Jose report the ready availability of large quantities of methamphetamine. Between October and December 1999, the low-end price of pound quantities of methamphetamine fell to $3,500 from $3,800 in the previous quarter (see Table 1). Ounce prices remained steady at a range of $500 to $1,000.

During 1998, methamphetamine purity levels in Northern California remained stable in some areas but decreased in others by as much as 30 percent. Some investigators have proposed three possible reasons:

  • Law enforcement agencies and tighter regulations reduced the availability of precursor chemicals.
  • Methamphetamine producers decreased purity levels in order to keep production in line with high demand.
  • Unscrupulous precursor companies charged methamphetamine producers high prices for chemicals, thus driving production costs up and purity levels down.

In late February 2000, authorities seized over 20,000 methamphetamine pills in four shipments destined for the Sacramento area. All four shipments originated in Laos. Usually methamphetamine pills trafficked by Thai or Laotian groups have been marketed to local Asian populations. DEA anticipates that these pills may become more popular among the general population, especially within the rave party scene.

Table 1. Methamphetamine Price and Purity

DEA Offices Price Range (dollars/pound) Purity Range (percent)
San Francisco 3,500 to 10,000 4 to 90
Sacramento 4,000    8,000 8    100
Bakersfield 5,500    7,500 25    50
Fresno 3,500    5,500  1    15
Oakland 3,800  4     5
San Jose 4,000    5,500 29    34

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration, San Francisco Field Division, Trends in the Traffic for the 1st Quarter FY2000: October-December 1999.

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Methamphetamine and violence--domestic violence and violence against society in general--have always gone hand in hand. Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system and can induce violent behavior, anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, hallucinations, mood swings, and delusions. Such violence poses a direct threat to law enforcement officers.

In April 2000, a man who police say had been taking methamphetamine and "acting paranoid" killed Vallejo Police Sergeant Jeff Azuar. Sgt. Azuar was shot when he and his partners tried to arrest the suspect on grand theft charges. The suspect fell out of a second-floor window after police shot him, yet continued to struggle with police, cutting one on the head. His "superhuman strength" was attributed to methamphetamine.

San Francisco Chronicle, 14 April 2000.


The methamphetamine trade is responsible for an alarming number of domestic abuse crimes ranging from child neglect to homicide. The paranoia that accompanies methamphetamine abuse has caused many users to assault and even kill family members. Adding to the domestic danger are the deplorable living conditions that characterize homes that have been turned into laboratories. Explosions in methamphetamine laboratories have caused fatalities.

Three children, ages 2, 6, and 9, were turned over to California's Child Protective Services after Fresno County Sheriff's Department detectives arrested the parents for operating a methamphetamine laboratory in their home. There was evidence the parents had poured toxic chemicals down the family's bathtub drain. The parents, ages 23 and 26, were booked on charges of methamphetamine production and child endangerment.

Fresno Bee, 20 February 2000.

Turf battles between rival methamphetamine distribution groups often fuel violence. Groups operating the large-scale methamphetamine laboratories increasingly found in the Eastern District of California are usually well armed, and their laboratories are often booby-trapped. Weaponry, including arsenals of high-powered weapons and explosives, is commonly found at laboratory sites in the district. Criminal trafficking groups use violence to keep employees under control. Because there is no shortage of cheap labor in the form of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico into California, drug groups often view their workforce as expendable. It is not uncommon for leaders to terrorize and even murder workers and their family members. Such violence is intended to quell both product thefts and cooperation with law enforcement and to increase drug production and distribution.

The Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC), formed in 1997, has had a dramatic impact on gang violence in Fresno and surrounding communities. MAGEC's 80 members are drawn from participating federal, state, and local agencies; 50 members are assigned full-time. Gang-related homicides in Fresno decreased from 19 in 1997 to 10 in 1998, 2 confirmed and 2 possible in 1999, and 2 through May 2000.

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Traffickers located in California produce a substantial amount of the methamphetamine available for sale in the United States. Despite law enforcement efforts and the enactment of the California Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, which tightened regulation of and reporting requirements for methamphetamine precursor chemicals, methamphetamine production and use in Northern California are increasing at an alarming rate. Every federal, state, and local law enforcement agency in the area recognizes that the threat from the production of methamphetamine in Northern California is widespread and expanding.

A Chowchilla police officer was checking on a rented van that contained methamphetamine-related chemicals when he noticed a man wearing only a plastic bag around his waist. The 22-year-old man claimed to be the devil and Jesus Christ. He led authorities to a large methamphetamine laboratory capable of producing 50 pounds at a time on a farm in Madera County.

Fresno Bee, 22 April 2000.

Methamphetamine is produced in superlabs--which yield 10 pounds or more per cook--or in small, mobile laboratories yielding 1 pound or less per cook. Mexican DTOs tend to situate superlabs in the Eastern District because of its wide open spaces, access to major interstate highways, and relative proximity to Mexico, major West Coast cities, and the state's principal precursor chemical supply companies. While only 16 percent of the clandestine laboratories seized by BNE task forces in 1998 were associated with Mexican DTOs, these accounted for 90 percent of all methamphetamine seized at laboratory sites. Operations of these Mexican DTOs are highly compartmentalized and only a few trusted associates have knowledge of the entire operation.

A longtime Central Valley methamphetamine production group was crippled recently by 23 arrests, according to federal and local law enforcement agencies. The 18-month investigation centered on a group authorities called the Medrano Family. Officers in the multiagency task force served 30 search warrants and took eight children into protective custody. Among those arrested for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine were brothers Xavier, Javier, and Ernesto Medrano, all of Delano. The brothers are believed to be the second generation of the drug group started by their father. Authorities blame the group for methamphetamine distribution in northern Kern County and Tulare County and several drug-related, drive-by shootings over the years. In conjunction with the arrests cited, officers uncovered four superlabs in northern Kern and southern Tulare Counties that were capable of producing more than 10 pounds of methamphetamine at one time. Police seized about 16 pounds of methamphetamine, along with $103,000 in cash, 7 vehicles, and 35 firearms.

Associated Press, 2 June 2000.

In 1998, BNE task forces seized and dismantled 1,006 clandestine laboratories, 60 more than in the previous year. Of these, 831 were methamphetamine and 166 were extraction laboratories; the remaining 9 laboratories produced hallucinogens, GHB, amphetamine, or hydriodic acid. Superlabs producing methamphetamine from pseudo-ephedrine, red phosphorus, and iodine crystals accounted for 99 percent of the drug laboratories seized in 1998. BNE seized 12,384 pounds of methamphetamine, a 71.5 percent increase over 1997. Statewide, El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) statistics show that law enforcement authorities seized 2,063 clandestine laboratories in 1999.

Many independent producers make smaller quantities--a pound or less per cook--in "stovetop" laboratories that can be set up almost anywhere: at home, in motel rooms, and in vans. They often make methamphetamine for their own use as well as for sale. Outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels are involved in low-volume methamphetamine production. Small laboratories are often located in urban areas, while the superlabs generally are located in isolated, rural settings. Recent events indicate this trend may be changing. For example, Modesto authorities report that in 1999 they seized almost 70 laboratories, at least 7 of which were high-capacity laboratories located in residential areas. The capacity of these 7 laboratories far outstrips the combined capacity of the others seized.

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The continued supply of pseudoephedrine, other precursor chemicals, and glassware is critical, especially for large-scale producers. Brokers acting for producers purchase the chemicals and glassware from major chemical supply houses located primarily in the Bay Area. These companies have been responsible for millions of dollars in sales of chemicals and glassware to laboratory operators throughout northern and central California. The brokers then sell the chemicals directly to producers or to "mules" who transport the chemicals to laboratory sites. This method of operation often prevents law enforcement from identifying producers or suppliers.

Pseudoephedrine tablets remain readily available in Northern California. Indications are that small liquor stores, gas stations, and mom-and-pop grocery stores are conduits for the movement of pseudoephedrine tablets in California. The tablets often are smuggled by Jordanian, Palestinian, or Yemeni groups who import the pseudoephedrine into California. Several law enforcement agencies report that California groups producing methamphetamine buy pseudoephedrine tablets from companies on the East Coast. These groups sometimes transport the tablets to Las Vegas, where they are stashed until they can be moved into California. The pseudoephedrine is sold to Mexican traffickers and local methamphetamine groups. Chemical suppliers, veterinary distributors, and feed stores sell the nutritional supplement DMSO2 (dimethylsulfone, also known as methylsulfonylmethane or MSM) used to cut methamphetamine.

From October 1999 to April 2000, a major Mexican production group purchased pseudoephedrine tablets from two separate Middle Eastern suppliers based in California. The group's methamphetamine production rose dramatically. The number of laboratories or dumpsites discovered also rose dramatically, to one per week compared with one per month previously. After the group was dismantled in April 2000, the numbers returned to their previous levels.

South Bay Meth Task Force Commander, interview by author, 31 May 2000.

Methamphetamine production is toxic and dangerous, especially for inexperienced independent producers. Because of the difficulty in procuring nonflammable fluorocarbon, a solvent in the methamphetamine production process, many small-quantity cookers are using camper fuel to produce methamphetamine. This has led to a number of explosions and fires because camper fuel is highly flammable, and those who use it are not experienced at producing methamphetamine. Authorities in Modesto report that they have seized five Nazi-method laboratories in the past year, and that the theft of anhydrous ammonia, integral to the Nazi method, is rising.

Methamphetamine creates environmental hazards with enormous cleanup costs. Production of 1 pound of methamphetamine yields approximately 5 pounds of waste chemicals such as lye, red phosphorus, hydriodic acid, and iodine that contaminate land, streams and rivers, public sewer systems, and the walls and furnishings of homes and businesses. Cleanup costs have risen dramatically, draining the budgets of county, state, and federal governments as well as those of private owners. Many of the methamphetamine laboratories seized by BNE in 1998 were located in agricultural areas, resulting in the dumping of high volumes of hazardous waste on farmlands and in water sources. In the Central Valley, authorities have found barrels, glassware, hoses, and other waste from methamphetamine laboratories in irrigation canals. The damage done to local agriculture is unknown but believed to be substantial.

Often the value of the contaminated property is less than the cleanup cost and owners simply walk away from their investments. In FY1999, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control budgeted $8 million for contractors to clean up clandestine laboratories and dumpsites. In FY2000, the Department of Toxic Substances Control responded to 2,006 clandestine laboratories and dumpsites and expects to exceed that number this year.

Central Valley authorities report that ethnic criminal groups that would not normally associate in the past have formed loose alliances to produce and distribute methamphetamine. In some instances, these loose coalitions have recruited violent gang members to be their enforcement arm.

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The Eastern District is a major area for transshipment of methamphetamine within California and to all sections of the country, particularly the Midwest and Southeast. Mexican criminal groups use the state's extensive highway system to transport methamphetamine.

Interstate 5 is a major pipeline for the transportation of methamphetamine and cocaine from the U.S.-Mexico border to Washington and Oregon. Approximately 50 percent of all highway seizures in California in 1999 occurred on this route. Many of these seizures took place in the counties just north of Sacramento. U.S. Highway 99 is another popular north-south roadway for transporters. Almost half of the nearly 700 kilograms of methamphetamine seized on all highways in Northern California was being transported to destinations within the state. From 1997 to 1998, methamphetamine seizures resulting from highway stops rose sharply, from 383 to 699 kilograms (see Chart 3).

All types of individuals transport methamphetamine. Mexican nationals transporting methamphetamine that originated in Northern California have been arrested in Iowa, Illinois, Texas, Florida, and several other states. Mexican groups have recruited Caucasian couples of all ages to transport methamphetamine. For example, older couples with motor homes occasionally are used to move the drug from California to other parts of the nation.

Chart 3.  Methamphetamine Seizures, California, 1995-1999

Chart showing methamphetamine seizure amounts in kilograms in Northern California for years 1995 through 1999.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, El Paso Intelligence Center, Operation Pipeline, Seizure Statistics, 1995-1999, updated 23 February 2000.

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Mexican criminal groups generally control methamphetamine wholesale and retail distribution, although outlaw motorcycle gangs remain involved. Mexican groups use Hispanic street gangs to distribute the bulk of the methamphetamine at the street level in both metropolitan and rural areas of Northern California. Hispanic gangs are established in all metropolitan areas of the state and are starting to emerge in smaller, rural communities. The California Department of Justice estimates there could be as many as 170,000 Hispanic gang members in California, ranging in age from 14 to 41.

In Fresno, Mexican nationals who produce the methamphetamine sell it in pound quantities to both Hispanic and Caucasian retailers. Retail sellers cut the methamphetamine and sell it in gram-sized bindles (a folded piece of paper containing up to 20 dosage units of any powdered drug) from houses similar to "crack houses." Members of the Fresno Bulldogs street gang distribute methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana in the area. Street operations by local law enforcement have forced these sellers off street corners.

In the Sacramento area, the Varrio Gardens, Elm Street Gangsters, Tiny Rascal Gang, and Tiny Little Rascals are active distributors. Members of Hispanic gangs like the Broderick Boys, Nuestra Familia, and Northern Structure distribute methamphetamine in Sacramento County.

Hispanic prison-based gangs that operate inside and outside prison are active in methamphetamine distribution, especially the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, and Northern Structure. Nuestra Familia was started in the mid-1960s to protect imprisoned Mexican-American gang members from rural northern California from the Mexican Mafia, whose members come from urban southern California. Hispanic gangs join alliances according to their origin, north or south--the Norteņos or Sureņos. Recently, Sureņo groups have moved into traditional Norteņo strongholds such as Salinas, sparking violent gang clashes. Nuestra Familia created Northern Structure as a front to evade law enforcement scrutiny. Nuestra Familia and Northern Structure recruit new members by using the music industry to glamorize their lives.

Mexican groups also exploit the many undocumented aliens in California to distribute methamphetamine at the retail level. In more rural areas, local distributors purchase methamphetamine from larger-scale Mexican groups for resale.

Some of these same areas have other ethnic street gangs involved in methamphetamine distribution in addition to Hispanic gangs. In the San Francisco area ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, and Samoan street gangs distribute methamphetamine as well as heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.

In San Mateo County, methamphetamine is usually sold indoors--for example at bars--by word-of-mouth advertising. Use of both powdered methamphetamine and crystal methamphetamine is increasing in the county. The majority of ice users are Filipino. The largest Filipino population outside the Philippines lives in San Mateo County.

Law enforcement reports the involvement of "skinhead wannabes" cutting and selling small quantities of methamphetamine. These white, independent dealers are making an increasing number of street-level methamphetamine sales in Modesto.

San Jose is the largest city in Northern California. Unlike other large cities in the state it has no institutional slums, blighted areas, or street methamphetamine dealers. Sales are usually made indoors, and are advertised by word-of-mouth, usually to friends or referrals. Sales may also take place in parking lots by prearranged meetings. A buyer walks up to a car window, drugs and cash are exchanged, and both parties separate quickly.

Most methamphetamine distributors in San Jose package their product in some form of plastic. This might include corners of small plastic food bags, corners of grocery bags, or small sheets of cellophane. Wholesale quantities (usually a pound) are shrink-wrapped in cellophane for distribution. Retail quantities are broken down further, and plastic tied off with string is the preferred packaging for final sale. Some distributors package powdered methamphetamine or ice in tin foil that is folded several times.

Approximately 90 percent of the cases investigated by the Santa Clara County Specialized Enforcement Team, a BNE task force, are methamphetamine-related. While Mexican national criminal groups operating superlabs produce most of the methamphetamine consumed in San Jose, the major city in Santa Clara County, the number of small-scale laboratories operated by Caucasians is growing. Many of these small-scale operators obtain production information over the Internet. The capacity of these smaller laboratories ranges from 2 to 8 ounces per cook. Many of these operators consume much of what they cook, selling the rest to friends to finance their next batch.

The DEA San Francisco Field Division's Mobile Enforcement Team completed a deployment in San Jose in December 1999. The 3-month deployment resulted in the arrest of 65 suspects and the seizure of 12.2 kilograms of methamphetamine, 1.4 kilograms of heroin, 18 firearms, one vehicle, and over $25,000. Of the 65 suspects arrested, 21 were members of a violent Vietnamese gang and 3 were top members of a violent Hispanic crime family.

A group calling itself the All Indian Mob is active in the San Francisco Bay Area. The group appears to have split into three factions, which operate out of Union City, San Jose, and Richmond. Authorities estimate there are several hundred members. The groups consist mainly of East Indian males in their late teens or early twenties, often college-educated. Several members of these gangs have been arrested for illicit drug sales (mainly methamphetamine and marijuana), weapons trafficking, and trafficking in illegal immigrants. Members have been involved in several shootings and serious assaults in Alameda, Santa Clara, and Contra Costa Counties. Some members of these gangs may be aligning themselves with Norteņo Hispanic street gangs for protection from rival gangs.

Wholesale quantities of ice are sold out of residences such as apartments or small houses in the San Francisco area. Bulk quantities of ice the size and shape of softballs are often wrapped in duct tape. Retail quantities of ice are typically distributed hand to hand on the street or purchased in a residence. Many crystal methamphetamine users prefer to use the drug immediately, so a house may serve as an "oasis" where the addict might use the drug.


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