Federal and local officials formally recognize northern California as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). Production/manufacturing, distribution, sales, and use all play a role in the regional drug landscape. The information provided in a federal report from the US Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center elucidates the reality of the drug problems citizens from all walks of life face every day. The widespread use and trafficking of illegal drugs affects entire communities, and awareness is part of the solution.
What an HIDTA Designation Means
HIDTA is a national designation given to areas seen as centralized locations of drug-related activities. Local law enforcement agencies petition for the designation and receive it if:
- Local and state law enforcement allocate resources to aggressively combat the problem
- Drugs and related activities currently produce serious and harmful consequences in the region and may impact other areas of the nation
- The location requires federal resources to effectively respond to the problem
Any geographic area within the US may qualify as an HIDTA if it meets these criteria and satisfies the petition requirements for the designation. Northern California has held its status as an HIDTA for several years. Drug trafficking and related activities remain a serious concern, requiring individual, local, and federal involvement to combat.
Recognize the Scope of the Problem
Over time, certain drugs pose more serious threats than others. At the time of the report, 2011, methamphetamine posed the most significant problem, and the potent drug continues to remain a top priority among law enforcement officials, public health officials, and community members. In addition to high rates of methamphetamine production and use, illegal marijuana distribution and use continue to pose a threat to the region. While California recognizes legal medical uses for the substance, illegal uses remain problematic. Methamphetamine and illegal, high-potency marijuana trafficking are top priorities within the region, although other illegal drugs including cocaine and heroin also create cause for concern. In fact, while trafficking activities center on methamphetamine and marijuana production, abuse issues often involve forms of cocaine. Heroin, including Mexican black tar heroin, is also abused at higher rates in the HIDTA. As a geographical center for trafficking, hundreds to thousands of kilograms of drugs flood the area each year. In 2010, drug seizures for some of the most dangerous and targeted drugs included:
- 61,149.35 kilograms of total marijuana
- 154 kilograms of methamphetamine (powder and ice)
- 696 kilograms of cocaine (crack and powder)
- 203 kilograms of heroin
For pricing perspective, consider that the wholesale price per pound for ice methamphetamine in 2010 ranged from $17,500 to $20,000. Keeping the exorbitant price of illegal drugs in mind, these seizures represent a lucrative and dangerous trade near the coast of northern California. To accurately gauge the picture of the region, one must also consider the unknowable amount of drugs that run through the community without seizure every year. This snapshot of the drug trafficking problem here indicates the sheer scope of the problem our local, state, and federal law enforcement officers combat.
The Geography of Drug Trafficking
Northern California’s HIDTA geographical area extends from the northern part of Mendocino County down to Monterey County and includes areas such as Santa Cruz, San Jose, Palo Alto, and Silicon Valley. Highway 101 runs through the area, and the region around San Francisco serves as a major interchange for interstates including I-5 and I-80. Many local cities are home to more than 250,000 residents.
The region is also home to the Port of San Francisco, which moved thousands of passengers and 93 tons of cargo in 2009. The Port of Oakland is one of the busiest container ports in the country. It saw more than 12.3 million tons of cargo during the same year. Unlike airports, which are subject to national security screenings, sea ports offer fewer opportunities for drug trade monitoring and management. These ports remain a challenging environment for law enforcement officers and others.
The San Francisco International Airport receives over 34 million travelers, and other major airports (including the San Jose International Airport and Oakland International Airport) are nearby. TSA protocol and security screenings greatly reduce the likelihood of drugs entering into or leaving the country during passenger air travel.
Transporting Drugs in the HIDTA
Drugs move in and out of the area via land, sea, and air. In addition to personal trafficking transportation, many drugs move through mailing systems and delivery services. From this location in northern California, drug moving organizations can access major foreign markets, including the continents of Asia and Europe and countries including Canada and Mexico. Domestically, traffickers can use the region to move drugs between major urban hubs in Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and on the East Coast. In a transportation hub such as northern California, law enforcement agencies must take a multifaceted approach to manage the widespread drug trafficking problem. Illegal drugs can potentially travel through all major modes of transportation available in the area, including vehicles, ships, planes, and third-party deliveries. The diversification of drug types and the amount of substances in movement only compound the problem.
Drug Distributors in HIDTA Areas
California has long been recognized for its gang and criminal organization problems. Several groups of individuals stand out in the drug trafficking industry. Some of the most recognized gangs and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) include:
- Mexican DTOs. Recognized as the dominant player in the wholesale drug trade, these organizations are well-organized and practiced in the illicit drug trade. They use vast established transportation networks to transport drugs to major markets in the US. These organizations play a major role in managing and moving the majority of methamphetamine, high-potency marijuana, cocaine, and heroine within the HIDTA.
Multigenerational families lead these organizations in funneling drugs from Mexico into the region using vehicles and a diverse range of storage areas, including homes and warehouses throughout the state. Task force officials indicate that leaders of DTOs maintain their base of operations in San Jose, Redwood City, East Palo Alto, and other areas. Law enforcement agencies consider Mexican DTOs the number-one threat in HIDTA drug trafficking. During a large DTO-centered investigation in 2008, named Operation Breadbasket, officials seized 612 pounds of ice methamphetamine, including 75 pounds of the higher potency formula. They also discovered $62,846, 10 kilograms of cocaine, two handguns, 1,405 pounds of marijuana, and three cars. Officials arrested 11 individuals associated with the investigation and uncovered information regarding a regional leader, money launderer, and drug couriers. A bust this large further indicates the size and severity of the drug trafficking problem as it relates to local DTOs.
- Gangs play a role in the drug trafficking industry as middlemen and retail distributors. They’re often violent groups that not only represent drug-related threats, but also other criminal threats—including murder, assault, racketeering, and weapons charges. Prison gangs including the Border Brothers, outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and street gangs like the Bloods and Crips, Sureños, and the Asian Boyz play various roles in the distribution of methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.
In one example of police involvement with gang members, 29 members of the MS 13 street gang were charged for several criminal activities associated with methamphetamine and cocaine distribution activities. The area gang leader pled guilty to several charges, including conspiracy to murder, gun crimes, and racketeering. The information regarding the players in the drug trafficking industry highlights the dangers surrounding the trade. In addition to the inherent dangers associated with selling and using illegal drugs, many involved in the industry often find themselves in other illegal activities, such as murder, robbery, extortion, weapons violations, grand theft auto, and more. Those involved with the industry face more than the risk of addiction and financial hardship, making the fight against these illegal activities all the more necessary.
Finances and the Drug Trafficking Industry
The illegal drug industry is a lucrative one, which is why so many individuals fall prey to the schemes and promises of Mexican DTOs and street gang leaders. In the Northern California HIDTA, both Asian and Mexican DTOs handle the majority of the money laundering operations associated with the regional drug trade. They smuggle cash from other countries through a variety of transportation modes including personal vehicles and delivery services. Money services businesses and casino card rooms often play a role in laundering schemes. In fact, during one Bay Area search of a card club, officers found several hundred thousand dollars in cash, jewelry, gambling chips, firearms, and drugs.
A Look Into California Drug Statistics Based on Prevalence
Understanding the big picture drug trade can help individuals recognize the dangers involved in possessing, using, and selling drugs. Using an illegal substance, even once, can place an individual firmly within the network of criminal activity in this HIDTA. Over time, some involved often become so entrenched in criminal organizations that they have a difficult time trying to leave the lifestyle behind. Consider these closer looks into some of the most dangerous drugs involved in trafficking in northern California:
Mexican DTOs provide the Northern California HIDTA with most of the methamphetamine trafficked and abused in the area. Both ice and powder forms of the drug remain popular choices among users. Methamphetamine is considered a synthetic stimulant that, over time, can create lasting effects on the systems of the body and cause death. Methamphetamine is dangerous to use, but it is also a dangerous substance to make. By “cooking” numerous over-the-counter ingredients, including the widely available cold medicine pseudoephedrine, the process releases several dangerous toxins into the environment and can explode under the right conditions. Spaces used to make methamphetamine often pose health hazards to those who live there for years after, and many buildings are later condemned. The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs indicated the substance as the primary reason for treatment admissions in the area from 2006-2010. In 2010, the agency reported an admissions rate of 9,375 individuals for problems with methamphetamine.
Pseudoephedrine and Methamphetamine Production
Unfortunately, placing restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine have not slowed the production of the substance. In light of legislation limiting sales and crackdowns on the practice of “smurfing” (going from retailer to retailer to source the ingredients without raising suspicion), many drug producers have switched to alternatives when making the illegal drug. Often, the result is a more potent version of methamphetamine. Around 30% of the methamphetamine transported here from Mexico features the stronger formula. **A note on smurfing. Smurfing, on its own, is a lucrative business. While some involved in the practice make their own methamphetamine, many more use their purchases to sell the pseudoephedrine they purchase on the black market. Smurfing rings in the state often include around 30 individuals in charge of purchasing the medication. These groups try to hit an average of 20 stores a day. From one day’s worth of work, these groups can source enough medication to create around four pounds of methamphetamine. Whether they sell the pills directly or sell the methamphetamine they make, many fall into the practice and earn a profit of less than $100 a day. In other words, the large organizations may become rich from the drug trade, but those they prey on to do their dirty work often make little from the practice
Law Enforcement Seizures and Statistics
This highly addictive and dangerous illegal drug is considered the number-one drug problem in the HIDTA, with ice methamphetamine posing a particular problem for trafficking and drug abuse. Out of 41 law enforcement agencies in the HIDTA area, 29 indicate a moderate to high level of ice methamphetamine availability in their areas. Twenty-four respondents consider the ice version of the drug as the greatest drug threat, and 24 consider it the most likely to contribute to violent crime. Twenty-eight associate the drug with criminal activities involving property. These are the highest rates of concern out of all the drugs available in the area. Powder methamphetamine, on the other hand, doesn’t rate quite as high among the 41 agency responders. Only five considered this form of methamphetamine as the greatest drug threat, and five considered it as the most likely to contribute to violent crime. Seven respondents considered powder methamphetamine as the most likely to contribute to property crime. Consider these additional statistics that shed light on the severity of the problem with methamphetamine in areas including Monterey, San Jose, and Santa Cruz.
- In 2010, the amount of ice methamphetamine seized increased by 709 kilograms over the previous year (from 97 kg to 806 kg).
- Law enforcement officials seized 22 methamphetamine labs in 2010 within the Northern California HIDTA region.
- Most laboratories seized during the 2010 year (18) could produce around two pounds of methamphetamine—or roughly $37,500 worth of illegal drugs. However, at least one laboratory that year produced 2-9 pounds of methamphetamine every cycle, and three produced 10 pounds or more.
- In addition to regular labs, law enforcement officials find ice conversion labs, chemical and equipment storage sites, and dumpsites. Slightly different seizure findings (because of a time lag in reporting) from the National Seizure System indicate the seizure of 12 methamphetamine laboratories, seven ice conversion spaces, three chemical and equipment storage areas, and two dumpsites in 2010.
Methmphetamine remains a dangerous and popular drug in the area, posing a significant threat to individual health, environmental health, law enforcement activities, and public safety. Comparatively, other drugs don’t pose the same level of danger at this time.
Second to methamphetamine, law enforcement officials recognize a problem with the cultivation, distribution, and use of high-potency marijuana. Under California Proposition 215, medical marijuana is legal for those under a physician’s care. An individual doesn’t need a prescription and may possess an average of eight ounces of the drug and six mature or 12 young plants.
Comparing National and Regional Seizure Data
According to 2010 data from the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP), around 90% of the 9.87 million plants removed in the US came from only seven states, including California. During that year, 7.2 million outdoor plants were removed California, and the Northern California HIDTA produced around 14% of the outdoor plants eradicated. For one area, 14% (or 1,018,963 plants) is an extremely high concentration. In the same year, indoor growing removal activities yielded 47,890 plants in the HIDTA area compared with 188,297 at the state level. Marijuana grown in the area travels as far as Hawaii, the East Coast, and into other countries including Canada. According to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, 5,051 individuals sought treatment for marijuana addiction in 2010, a decrease of 704 from the previous year. From the 2011 National Drug Threat Survey, only six law enforcement agencies out of 41 considered marijuana as the most significant drug-related threat in the area, while seven rated the drug as the most likely to contribute to violent crime.
Marijuana cultivators can engage in indoor or outdoor cultivation practices. In an indoor environment, cultivators contain much more control over the growing process and can often produce more reliable crops at a higher level of potency. The prospect entices many growers due to the profitability of the venture. They can produce a high-potency product every 90 days without consideration for outdoor seasonal changes. Out of the 41 law enforcement agency responses in the HIDTA area, 33 indicated a problem with indoor marijuana cultivation. In 2010, law enforcement removed 47,890 plants from indoor grow sites (an increase of almost 9,000 plants from the previous year). Those who cultivate cannabis indoors use a variety of sites, including homes, warehouses, and apartments. They use modern technology to manage crops through lighting systems, hydroponics, and controlled soil formulations. When setting up their growing conditions, many modify electrical setups onsite and create public safety hazards.
Mexican DTOs and Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation
However, problems with large operations and illegal trafficking still abound. Popular culture and science may support the use of marijuana medically (and even recreationally), but many of the large operations in the Northern California HIDTA are associated with Mexican DTOs. These operations typically involve other criminal activities, such as drug trafficking operations, human trafficking, weapons violations, and violence. As a result, illegal cultivation poses a threat to public safety and law enforcement officials charged to protect and serve. Many of the area’s Mexican DTOs hire undocumented aliens to manage the marijuana cultivation areas. These individuals may receive wages for their work, but others comply with the DTO to earn legal passage into the US and/or to protect their families still residing in Mexico. Some cultivation areas aren’t hidden away on private property, but instead are situated on public property, including the Mendocino National Forest. Law enforcement officials from Lake, Santa Clara, and Monterey counties all indicate an unspecified increase in marijuana growing activities associated with the Mexican DTOs.
Asian DTOs, Other Criminal Elements, and Indoor Cannabis Cultivation
Demographically, the landscape for indoor cultivation is different. Asian DTOs, including Chinese and Vietnamese groups, Caucasian criminal gangs/groups, and independent marijuana dealers, are responsible for the majority of indoor cannabis cultivation in the HIDTA. Many Asian DTOs keep their management functions outside of the country to prevent law enforcement from eradicating their operations. They invest in a network of homes and individuals, which makes pinning down the entire operation more difficult. Others use the guise of legality to hide their illegal activities. Growers may invest in a legitimate medical marijuana business and then intentionally ignore the stipulations put in place for growing. Growers will keep a larger amount of processed product ready to sell or grow more plants than allowed during the season. They sell their excess on the black market for profit.
Violence and Cannabis Cultivation
As an illegal activity, many DTOs arm their workers to protect the site from outsiders and law enforcement agencies. Along with reports of more growing activities come reports of associated acts of violence. In 2011, reports from law enforcement officials indicated that DTO workers may be armed with assault weapons, hunting rifles, and sniper rifles. On public land, armed growers may encounter daytrip hikers, campers, hunters, and park officials monitoring the area. In 2010, officers indicated an unusually high number of violent incidents associated with Mexican cannabis cultivation workers. During the month of August in 2010, law enforcement working with the DEA’s DCE/SP cited a higher number of armed incidents than ever before—although exact data for the prevalence wasn’t documented. Recorded encounters for the 2010 growing year included two incidents in June: one involved a firearm discharge directed at a patrol car. Two incidents involving armed individuals were recorded in July, three incidents in August involving multiple armed individuals, and one incident in September involving an armed dispute. Indoor cultivators who fail to adhere to medical marijuana laws may protect their investments using weapons and booby traps, further adding to the hazardous nature of the venture. These individuals must often answer to a DTO, face criminal rivalries, and prepare for law enforcement discovery.
While cocaine doesn’t pose as great a threat as methamphetamine or marijuana in the Northern California HIDTA area, it’s an ongoing problem as a drug with a high rate of abuse in the region. Mexican DTOs play a major role in all drug distribution in northern California, and cocaine is no different. Using ports on the Mexico-US border, this highly addictive drug makes its way to dealers who sell it at parties, on street corners, and at other locations.
Statistics on Cocaine Seizure and Use
In 2010, the Northern California HIDTA seized 89.302 kilograms of powdered cocaine and 2.394 kilograms of crack cocaine. Cocaine is a stimulant that comes from the coca plant, which is native to South America. Users either snort or inject powder cocaine. Crack cocaine users smoke this version of the drug derived from powdered cocaine. The crack version is more addictive than the powder version of cocaine and more commonly associated with urban drug use. Law enforcement officials indicate that both are available and abused in the HIDTA area. Statistics on treatment for drug-related problems in publicly funded facilities indicate that 4,436 individuals were admitted for cocaine and crack cocaine problems in 2010. This is a significant decrease from previous years. Only two law enforcement agencies considered crack cocaine as the greatest drug threat to the area in 2011, and none considered powdered cocaine as the most significant threat.
Heroin also represents a secondary threat in the HIDTA area of northern California, but one that remains a serious problem for trafficking and abuse. Organizations involved in the production and trade of methamphetamine and marijuana also often play a role in the trafficking of cocaine and heroin around the region. DTOs from Mexican and Asian backgrounds and local gangs may share involvement with the substance. Derived from resin found in poppy plants, heroin is a refined end-product that users inject. An opiate, the substance is more addictive than morphine. Producers often cut the substance with more dangerous compounds, including chemicals and poisons.
Statistics on Heroin Seizure and Use
In 2010, 8.203 kilograms of heroin were seized in the Northern California HIDTA. While this number represents one of the lowest amounts of drugs seized, the drug is extremely potent—and these numbers may not reflect the total amount of drugs being trafficked and used in the area. Law enforcement officials suggest that heroin maintains moderate to high levels of availability and abuse. Some drug users switch to heroin from prescription drugs to keep the costs of their addiction down. For example, maintaining a habit of OxyContin prescription abuse could cost around $240 each day for around six doses. Black tar heroin, on the other hand, costs around $80 per day for an equivalent amount. Many teens and young adults find themselves turning to heroin addiction from another gateway drug. In 2010, 4,681 individuals were admitted into publicly funded treatment programs because of heroin addiction problems. The number of admissions for heroin-related issues has steadily decreased since 2006 and was reduced by almost 2,500 individuals from 2009 to 2010. No law enforcement agency surveyed in 2011 considered heroin as the greatest drug threat facing the HIDTA area, and only one considered the drug as the most likely to contribute to violent crime.
Black Tar Heroin and Mexican DTOs
Mexican black tar heroin is a cheaper and more popular version of the drug sold in California. The compound’s unique tar-like characteristics come from the refinement process and do not require high-quality lab equipment to create. Mexican DTOs, in particular, trade this form of heroin in the Northern California HIDTA.
Other Drugs (LSD, PCP, MDMA, etc.)
The Northern California HIDTA area also faces problems with other illegal and illegally used drugs at varying extents. MDMA (also known as ecstasy), PCP, LSD, and illegally used prescription drugs all play a role in the drug trafficking scene here Asian DTOs and criminal groups are most often responsible for the transportation and sale of MDMA in the vicinity. MDMA has also been seized at air mail centers in the HIDTA area, indicating its ability to sneak through mail service deliveries from all over the world. Other drugs, including prescriptions, PCP, and LSD, may come from independent dealers in the area or via internet sales and mailing services. Many of these so-called “party drugs” are distributed at clubs and house parties, on university campuses, and at raves. The category of “other drugs” was responsible for 2,774 drug-treatment admissions in 2010—a number that has progressively increased over the years since 2006. Despite a clear recognition of problems in the population, law enforcement officials do not recognize the category as a significant threat.
CPDs and Drug Trafficking
Only four out of 41 law enforcement respondents considered CPDs (controlled prescription drugs) as the most significant drug threat in the region in 2011. Some of the most commonly abused prescriptions include benzodiazepines, opioid pain relievers, and phendimetrazine. In San Francisco, the DEA collected 11,648 pounds of excess, unused, and expired prescription drugs across 96 sites in northern California in 2010 to keep them out of abusers’ hands. Users acquire prescription drugs through a variety of means, including mail delivery, theft, forgery, and doctor shopping. All are illegal modes of access and part of the drug trafficking problem.
Other Drugs and a Lack of Data
These other drugs create a unique problem in the overall picture of drug trafficking. Unlike other drugs shipped in large quantities, many of these are available in pill form and can enter into any environment under the guise of a legitimate pharmaceutical drug or vitamin. Compounding the threat of these drugs is the fact that law enforcement doesn’t have the resources or actionable data needed to detect and intercede to reduce the risks posed by these outliers in the drug trafficking industry. They can target large organizations and gangs but may not always see the activities of independent dealers scattered throughout the world. While the problem of these other categories of drugs is distinctive, they clearly fall behind methamphetamine, marijuana, and drugs such as heroin and cocaine in terms of urgency. The rate of addiction is lower, as is the culture of cultivation and trafficking in the HIDTA area.
Drug Use Problems and Drug-Related Treatment
Many of the drugs that earn a place for high alert among law enforcement are highly dangerous and addictive. With as little as one use, an individual can start to feel the pull of addiction and get sucked into a cycle of dependency. Often, dealers purposefully hand out freebies to individuals to give them a taste of the experience and then start charging them for using the drug on a regular basis. Over time, these customers can’t escape the dependency without assistance. Each category of drug represents a different story where treatment is concerned, but together, the statistics on drug-related admissions also offer some interesting insights. Approximately 26,317 individuals were admitted into public programs for drug-related treatment in 2010. In 2009, 33,126 individuals were admitted, and in 2006, 38,683 individuals were admitted. The number of admissions has fallen, but the question remains: Have they fallen because the problem is going away, or have they fallen because fewer individuals are seeking assistance? Without contextual information about dependency rates and supporting facts, we can’t rightly assume that lower admission rates mean fewer problems—especially when the law enforcement officers continued to see a high rate of trafficking in the area in 2011. Ultimately, drug dependency varies based on the type of drug used, recovery differs for each individual, and drug traffickers continue to explore new markets and lure in new drug users. Only a continued effort on the part of advocates, law enforcement agencies, educators, and health officials can continue to combat this ever-present threat within the Northern California HIDTA and communities from Mendocino to Santa Cruz and everywhere in between.
Putting the Data Together: An Outlook on Drug Trafficking and Abuse
Understanding the data on drug trafficking and abuse can help individuals make better decisions about their own futures, but it can also help advocates, healthcare professionals, and others gain an awareness and appreciation for the status quo in the Northern California HIDTA. The outlook from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s Drug Market Analysis 2001 for the Northern California HIDTA Program does provide some predictive information health advocates can use to understand the past five years and the future of drug trafficking in the area:
- The Mexican DTOs have the upper hand. For the foreseeable future, law enforcement agencies recognize this group as one of the most serious threats across all drug-related activities, including the trafficking of ice methamphetamine, Mexican black tar, and cocaine. Other criminal groups don’t have the resources, structure, or clout to overthrow the hold of the Mexican DTOs in the HIDTA. With the adoption of cross-border transportation services such as Uber, trafficking between the two countries may increase.
- Ice methamphetamine maintains its status as the top drug threat in the area. The demand for the drug increases all the time across this region and others. Law enforcement officials don’t expect the demand for the drug to fall off in the near future, and the likelihood that producers will expand their operations is high. As Mexican DTOs further entrench themselves in the trade, they’re becoming savvier at developing high-yield laboratories capable of producing hundreds of pounds of product.
While law enforcement officials may bust one laboratory or one ring of dealers, they rarely have an opportunity as they did in Operation Breadbasket to bust a multifaceted operation involving a large amount of methamphetamine.
- Smurfing rings continue to pose a problem. Smurfing gives producers access to a large quantity of supplies and supports high-yield conversion laboratories. The problem spans large geographical areas, often across several states.
- The Northern California HIDTA is poised to maintain its status as one of the most active cannabis cultivation centers in the US. Users are looking for high-potency versions of the drug, and medical marijuana laws give growers the foothold needed to continue to pursue trafficking activities in the area. Indoor cultivation in particular is a notable area for growth.
Drug trafficking is a threat to users and other individuals within HIDTA communities. With the increased risk of associated crimes and active, large criminal organizations driving operations, fighting the illicit drug industry in the Northern California HIDTA will likely remain an ongoing battle for years to come.