Fresno, California CNN  — 

He says he was just headed to Walgreens. But the expired registration on his car tag meant he could be pulled over.

So there he is, sitting on the cold curb at night, cuffed by the Fresno County sheriff’s deputies.

Yes, the man tells CNN, he’d avoided getting a new registration, not wanting to spend the money. So now the 28-year-old is looking at a ticket on top of the registration and a late fee.

Nothing comes cheap and easy for him – except for methamphetamine.

That’s the lesson he says he got at the age of 13, when his older brother, the person he looked up to the most in the world, told him to try the drug.

“And from then on, it just took control,” he says.

Meth has also taken control of a large swath of Fresno, California. Evolving production and distribution has kept supply plentiful – and lethal. National data shows deaths from methamphetamine and other psychostimulants are up 48% in the year from May 2020 through April 2021, accounting for more than a quarter of all overdose deaths in that time. In Fresno, meth is the leading killer.

There were more meth overdose deaths in Fresno County in 2020 than those of any other kind of drug, according to the coroner’s unit. There were more meth deaths than suicides or homicides; more deaths than people killed in autos involving one- or two-vehicle crashes; more deaths than fire, falls and drowning combined.

On the streets

The man on the curb asks CNN not to use his name or show his face – which is covered in tattoos of a violent Fresno street gang he says he joined about the time he started using meth.

A meth user talks to CNN's Kyung Lah about how he started on the drug.

He’s inked on his arms, legs and skull, too, all marks of the crew he says he has now managed to quit. He has not been in trouble with the police since 2018, determined to live a cleaner life for his two boys, aged 5 and 7.

But there’s also a sign of the thing he can’t quit – a large, leaking abscess on the inside of his left arm where he injects meth.

“When’s the last time you used?” asks Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Burk.

“Yesterday,” the man replies. He said he’d just lost his job as a forklift driver, one of the highest-paying jobs he’d had in a long time at $25 an hour. He uses, he explains, in times like these, “when I get stressed out.”

Burk chats about his own children, “Mine are 7 and 9,” as he processes the ticket for the expired registration. But the truth is the two men have little in common except their connection to meth in Fresno – one the user, the other too often cleaning up what happens after use.

“Methamphetamine is destroying the community,” Burk says. “It’s fueling nothing but crimes.”

Burk has seen meth ravage households, generations, and his city for the nearly 17 years he’s been a cop, he says. There’s no end in sight.

“Methamphetamine, it is such an addictive drug,” says Burk. “They can’t get rid of it. They can’t stop it. Even if they want to stop it, they can’t. Their body won’t allow them to.”

Out in the community

Burk, 39, starts his SUV for his shift, his wife’s smiling photo taped just below the ignition.

“Yeah, she’s always with me,” says Burk, himself beaming as he looks down at the photo. The deputy works the overnight shift so he can maximize time with his family – his wife, daughter and son.

Fresno Sheriff's Deputy Todd Burk says he encounters the impact of meth throughout his night shifts.

“I get sleep around their schedules,” explains Burk. Plus, he adds, “I enjoy the adrenaline rush out here.”

“Out here” is nighttime in Fresno County, the jurisdiction of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Burk is one of the deputies patrolling the 6,000-square-mile county that encompasses mountain terrain, farmland and the city of Fresno. About a million people live in the majority Latino county, and methamphetamine cuts through it all.

“You can’t live in this community and not have, at some point in your life, seen the effects of methamphetamine,” says Burk, his patrol SUV rolling through the outskirts of the city. Everything seems to come back to it, with crimes such as domestic disturbances and theft fueled by the drug, he says. 

Spend one night shift with Burk, and the crisis in Fresno comes into clear focus. 

Deputies take a woman out of a busy street. Burk said she could be under the influence of methamphetamine.

Turning onto a busy street, there’s a woman, apparently high on something, wandering into oncoming traffic.

“Hello, hey are you OK?” Burk says to the woman, who is frantic and on the phone. “Come out of the road.”

Burk is dressed in his uniform but sounds more like a calm dad as he speaks to the woman, asking her again and again even as she doesn’t appear to hear him. He and another deputy pull the woman to the sidewalk.

“Something’s causing her to panic and be paranoid,” says Burk, outlining a familiar sign of methamphetamine use.

“You have to treat somebody who’s under the influence a little differently. Sometimes they don’t feel pain. They’re paranoid. At times, they act out and they don’t realize it sometimes. It’s just what’s going on in their brain because of the drug. It’s very unpredictable dealing with somebody on methamphetamine.”

A new recipe, a new impact

That unpredictability has gotten worse as the production of meth has evolved in the last 15 years, says retired Department of Justice special agent Robert Pennal. 

“It’s not the same dope. It’s different,” he said.

Pennal began his career chasing California’s biker gangs in the late 70s and 80s when they produced methamphetamine using a clear liquid called phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P. That P2P method would fade as ephedrine, a component in over-the-counter sinus medicine, became the key ingredient for making meth. 

“We’d hit these labs and we’d see nothing but blister packs of ephedrine,” said Pennal. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act would, in 2006, limit how much ephedrine could be purchased at one time, effectively restricting the key element to meth production. 

Mexican cartels, who had muscled their way into the illegal business, shifted gears, said Pennal. “They ran out of pseudoephedrine, so they went back to make it the old way, from back in the 70s and 80s, and started making it with P2P.” But unlike the small-scale meth kitchens of the biker gangs, the cartels began manufacturing meth in warehouses that resemble large breweries, often in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where they are powerful.

In those huge laboratories, Pennal said, the meth is now manufactured into its crystal form and then dissolved into solutions that are difficult for US Customs X-ray machines to detect. Once across the border, the solution is made into a crystal again in “ice recovery labs,” he said.

“You’re just talking about huge, huge operations. They’re factories and we’re on the receiving end of that. That’s why there’s so much methamphetamine here.”

In Fresno, an easy hop from I-5 that goes all the way to the San Ysidro border crossing, Burk concurs. “The supply is so high. The demand is high,” he says. “It’s easier to get your hands on it, it’s cheaper. And it produces a high that becomes addicting. And your normal life goes away when you’re under the influence of methamphetamine.”

‘It fries your brain’

You can see and hear the impact of meth around Fresno, even without a police guide.

Users tend to disintegrate – their teeth dissolving from the toxic smoke and their voices fading to a squawk. And now the newer formulations make users more psychotic, or likely to drop dead, according to the law enforcement officers and experts interviewed for this story.

“Nowadays it’s not even meth anymore,” says John Chapman, who lives in the district patrolled by Officer Burk. Chapman, 55, is the rare example of someone who got off meth – clean for three years now after decades of use, he says.

John Chapman's voice is raspy and he suffers leg spasms. But he says he has managed to get off meth.

His own mother first gave him the drug when he was 11. “She said she rather me do it in front of her than doing it behind her back,” Chapman explains to CNN. 

“Back then the meth wouldn’t kill you. Now it does. It gave me nerve damage. It actually fries your brain.”

Chapman’s legs still spasm due to the damage from the constant drug use, he says, and he has the unmistakable dental decay known as “meth mouth.” His voice is hoarse, his vocal cords damaged from toxic fumes.

But what finally got him to quit, he says, was the realization that the drug had outpaced him. 

“Meth these days is more addicting than it was back then,” Chapman says. The new meth made Chapman more violent, he says. “The chemicals they use in it, they’re messing with your brain even more.”

Meth can also be adulterated with fentanyl, as is the case with other street drugs, which are killing so many in the US.

Unlike other drugs, there is no antagonist or antidote like the naloxone carried to reverse an opioid overdose. If meth users OD, explains Pennal, the former special agent, “basically, it’s a one-way ride.” 

‘I started to be the weirdo’

On the streets of Los Angeles, about 220 miles south of Fresno, Eric Barrera is trying to get to meth addicts before they punch that ticket.

He works for Healthcare in Action, a “street medicine” team made up of medics, mental health care workers and social workers that visit homeless encampments. His personal focus is to reach meth users.

Barrera, 41, served in the US Marine Corps before a decade of meth abuse that culminated in him becoming homeless. He steps into the drug crisis with a lived-in authenticity and survival story few can rival. “Meth addicts will listen a bit more to a recovering drug addict than they might to a doctor who’s never walked in their shoes,” Barrera tells CNN. 

He spends his days walking through tent encampments, choosing to spend his time with meth addicts, even as he concedes many see them as the least sympathetic of drug abusers. Sober since June 9, 2013, Barrera offers an unvarnished take on how the new P2P meth is fueling some of society’s worst problems. 

The streets of Fresno, just as in Los Angeles and other cities, have people living on them, some driven to homelessness by meth use.

“This new dope, when there was no more access to ephedrine, the damage was just instant. There were no euphoric feelings anymore. It wasn’t a party drug. It wasn’t a social drug. When you did that stuff, you were weird. You got weird. And I started to be the weirdo.”

Barrera recalls hearing the voices, seeing the delusions, and having intense feelings of paranoia. He believes his meth use caused the mental health problems that he manages today with the help of medication. And more directly, Barrera draws a line from meth to his homelessness. “It’s definitely fueling it,” says Barrera of homelessness. “Everyone wants to blame mental illness or the high rent prices. But this stuff is causing mental illness.”

His story is chronicled along with others by New York Times bestselling author and freelance journalist Sam Quinones in a new book,  The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. Quinones says his reporting shows the impact of the meth that’s been coming out of Mexico for the last 8 to 10 years, “accompanied by terrifying symptoms of schizophrenia, severe paranoia, and vivid hallucinations.” Quinones describes it as, “People living as if the world is out to kill them.” 

Quinones calls meth the “worst face” of addiction. “When people die from opioids, there’s memorials, heartfelt posts on Facebook. There’s some way of connecting with that person,” he says. “But meth decays you. And meanwhile, you’re absolutely out of your mind, unable to live with anybody.” 

And these people usually end up on the street.

Trying to break the cycle

On the streets of Fresno, Deputy Burk has only a few tools to try to help the meth users he encounters on a nightly basis – a ticket, an offer of a rehabilitation program, or the days to sober up in jail. 

“Somebody who is in possession of methamphetamine, if I can arrest them and try to get them a program, that’s my goal. I want to see somebody who’s constantly high on methamphetamine change their life and become a productive citizen. I think they want it as well.”

If you need help

  • 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is the national helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It’s free, confidential, available in English and Spanish, and operates 24/7, 365 days a year to give referrals and information.

    Burk says the words “help” and “program” repeatedly throughout the night, even as some users berate him.

    His remarkably upbeat demeanor cracks just once, when the tattooed ex-gang member doesn’t warn him there’s a syringe and needle in his car.

    “Man, you gotta tell me,” Burk says, visibly irritated as he pulls out the needle. Accidental needle pricks are a daily health risk in Burk’s job. 

    The needle is empty, along with a baggie that once held crystal meth. Burk also finds a torch pipe, but no drugs. That is why the younger man let him search the car. 

    A deputy searches a car in Fresno. Getting pricked by a drug needle is a common hazard.

    Still sitting on the curb, the user says he knows what it’s like to be clean. “I went from being a crazy lunatic to just a normal guy,” he says. “Though I don’t ever feel normal.” 

    He says he’s been sent to prison three times and to jail so often he’s lost count. But having stayed out of serious legal trouble since 2018, perhaps he justifies Burk’s optimistic outlook.

    “I’m trying to stay straight so I can have my kids straight,” he says.

    But for now, his plan is to try to keep the meth away from his boys – even as he still uses himself.

    CNN’s Kyung Lah and Anna-Maja Rappard reported and wrote from Fresno, California, and Los Angeles; Rachel Clarke wrote in Atlanta.