Methamphetamine production is as Californian as yoga retreats, “dude,” LA’s “Los Doyers,” and Sunday menudo. Even our former attorney general and current senator, Kamala Harris declared California to be “the national epicenter of meth trafficking and distribution.”1 In fact, four out of every five “hits” of meth consumed in the United States are coming from Californian industrial-scale labs.2 To add to this dubious distinction, seventy percent of America’s methamphetamine can be traced to entry at the San Diego boarder.3 Before Mexican cartels became the primary supplier of the raw and liquid forms of crystal meth, West Coast biker gangs, like the Hells Angels, controlled the production and distribution of meth.

Up to the 1980’s, meth use had simmered among bikers and truckers, then it boiled over into the general population. This occurred when cooks producing amphetamine for local biker gangs discovered that ephedrine, an ingredient in over-the-counter cold remedies, could produce methamphetamine, and it turned out that this new form of the drug was twice as potent. Unlike other hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, meth can be made from primarily household products, such as anhydrous ammonia, battery acid, drain cleaner, and camp fuel. The only essential ingredient is the ephedrine, or later its cousin pseudoephedrine. The relative ease of acquirement and production of large quantities of meth led to a local and then national inundation. California has become known as the “meth-exporting nation.”4 By some estimates the Golden State produces more meth than the next five biggest producer states combined.5

Although, there has been much recent concern and debate over the resurgence of heroin use (and the abuse of Oxytocin,) meth use in the U.S. still surpasses heroin, cocaine, and crack. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 12.3 million Americans age 12 and older have tried meth at least once.6 Furthermore, The U.N. World Drug Report claims meth as “the most abused hard drug on earth,” citing that the world’s 26 million meth addicts equals the combined number for cocaine and heroin users.7

The immediate effects of meth use produce a state of extreme stimulation in the brain, causing excitation, increased alertness, highly focused attention, decreased appetite, and elevated motivation and confidence.8 Chronic use of meth can cause paranoia, hallucinations, repetitive behavior, and delusions. Meth withdrawal in chronic users can last anywhere from six months to two to three years.9 In California, meth is the primary drug of abuse among those seeking treatment, surpassing alcohol and heroin.10

Meth addiction has had a substantial impact on the Californian criminal justice system. In some Californian cities over a third of arrested individuals test positive for methamphetamine. The rate of incarceration for drug-related offenses rose from 1,778 in 1980 to a whopping 45,455 in 1999. By the end of the 1990’s, over half of Californians incarcerated for drug offenses were there for possession alone.11 As well, in this period between 70-85% of inmates were estimated to require substance abuse treatment, less than 11% received any.12 The passage of Prop 36 in 2000, which allowed qualifying defendants convicted of non-violent drug possession offenses to receive probation instead of incarceration, has made somewhat of an impact on these grim statistics. In 2000, prior to the passage of Prop 36, 28% of the California prison population was in for drug offenses; in 2003 the percentage declined to 22% of the total population.13 Over half of the accused that take advantage of Prop 36 list methamphetamine as their primary drug.

From this onslaught of statics what is useful to note, is that while only around a quarter Californian inmates are incarcerated on drug charges, the majority of them are in the position to require substance abuse treatment upon entry. That is because many of those incarcerated with non-drug offenses were still in the throes of addiction at the time of their arrest.

The five inmates featured in this exhibition on meth addiction and incarceration racked up a number of drug and non-drug related convictions; however, all of them committed their various crimes under the influence of drugs. Theirs is a story of a life of criminal activity that began and ended with their addiction. When asked what was the biggest factor that contributed to the end of their incarceration cycle, all responded that sobriety, getting clean off meth, was the biggest factor.

Their stories tell many pieces of the Californian story of its rise to the top “meth-exporting nation,” and the damage this distinction inflicts on its citizens. Jessica was a small time meth hook-up for the Hells Angels biker gang that suffered as the collateral damage of a federal sting operation. Eddie was a successful meth manufacturer in the San Fernando Valley, until a phone call from his father landed him in prison. Antonio was born into a family of Mexican gang members, some of whom sold and controlled the drug’s distribution on the street. Luke was a kid from a private school whose addiction took over eight years of his life. And finally, Jackie started using hard drugs at thirteen when she was jumped into a local gang. She hit her low point when her two children were permanently removed from her custody, but she has now been clean for seven years and works as a drug rehabilitation councilor.



Antonio Addicts in Jail
« of 7 »



  1. Mozingo, Joe. “A Gritty Life for Those on the Edge.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 14 June 2015.
  2. “Meth Timeline.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 16 May 2011.
  3. Harris, Kamala D. “Transnational Organized Crime: Executive Summary.” Office of the Attorney General. California Attorney General, 10 Apr. 2014.
  4. “Meth Timeline.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 16 May 2011.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Methamphetamine.” NIDA. National Institute of Abuse, Feb. 2017.
  7. “World Drug Report.” World Drug Report 2016. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, 2017.
  8. “Recommendations to Improve California’s Response to Methamphetamine.” CSAM. California Society of Addiction Medicine.
  9. “Crystal Meth Addiction Statistics.” Drug & Alcohol Rehab Guides. Rehab International, 2017.
  10. “Recommendations to Improve California’s Response to Methamphetamine.” CSAM. California Society of Addiction Medicine.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.