Meth addiction eats at Sacramento foothills

Local author lifts veil on connection between crime, drug abuse and the demise of rural communitiesLocal author sinks teeth into meth addiction in the Sacramento foothills

Shots from local writer Scott Thomas Anderson’s new book on Northern California meth culture, <i>Shadow People</i>.

Shots from local writer Scott Thomas Anderson’s new book on Northern California meth culture, Shadow People.

Photo By PHOTOs courtesy of scott thomas anderson

Scott Thomas Anderson interviewed more than 200 addicts in researching his new book. A former SN&R contributor, you can find out more about his book, Shadow People, at

Popular TV dramas such as Breaking Bad and Intervention offer viewers fresh and searing looks at methamphetamine culture. But local crime reporter Scott Thomas Anderson says his new book, Shadow People, is a different and untold story of the meth epidemic in America.

Anderson spent 18 months embedded with police in the rural counties just outside of Sacramento looking for the connection between meth addiction and criminality. After logging hundreds of hours with law enforcement from Calaveras, Jackson, Ione, Amador, and El Dorado, among others, he says national media, such as Frontline and National Geographic, do not sufficiently draw the connection the between crime and addiction in meth-affected communities.

“I have seen good media pieces on meth, but they always leave out what I wrote about,” Anderson told SN&R, “which is the victimization of what this addiction drives people to do. We’re talking about all manners of property crime, identity theft, domestic violence, vicious assaults.

“Child abuse is the most prevalent and invisible tragedy in the whole meth story.”

Meth is a gripping drug that affects the brain’s biochemistry. Users who become dependent on the drug have relapse rates as high as 92 percent, Anderson’s book reports. Addicts suffer from paranoia, self-mutilation, sleeplessness, tooth erosion, delusions of meth mites crawling over the skin, and seeing what is described as “shadow people.”

Though generally cheap, the meth market is highly volatile. One addict told Anderson that he could maintain his meth addiction on $7 a day.

Shadow People documents the U.S. government’s attempts to ban chemicals such as propanone in 1980 and, more importantly, its crackdown on ephedrine in 2005, which has failed to halt meth production and demand. The ban lead to domestic labs in most states falling by nearly 80 percent, and statistics released between 2006 and 2008 initially suggested the ban on ephedrine lead to the decline in domestic production and usage.

“But it was a phantom punch,” Anderson argued. He explained that during the bans, the way meth was produced and trafficked evolved dramatically.

“Prior to 2005 in California, most meth was coming out of so-called ‘ma-and-pa’ meth labs that you find in Sacramento, all along the foothills, labs all along the [Highway] 99 corridor in Central and Southern California,” he said.

Today, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 85 percent of meth now comes from Mexico.

According to Anderson, most of the meth in Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties comes through Sacramento County via Southern California. This is based on police intelligence and accounts from addicts and captured traffickers.

“Large drug cartels have taken the market over, and they’re cooking mountains of meth in Mexico and bringing it up into the United States,” he said. “Believe it or not, a lot of addicts are really disgruntled about the new trafficking setup, because before they could get meth from their friends who were cooking it.”

The production changes in meth have also changed the population of users.

“It is still chewing up poor white [communities], but it’s also causing a lot of tragedy and heartache in the Hispanic community, too, now,” Anderson said.

And what you do for a living plays a big role, too.

“Truckers, construction workers, factory assembly people—anyone that works in an industry where there’s a financial incentive to make more money doing things your body really can’t handle—those are the industries and jobs where you see meth creep in.”

Anderson is a proponent for youth programs and prevention initiatives to stave off a large fourth generation of meth addicts.

“I think that’s the real battlefront. It’s the young people,” Anderson said. “Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties—they are on their third generation of meth addicts now.”