Meth was taxing Kern County’s services and taking a toll on its communities. At the request of Kern County’s Board of Supervisors, Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services contracted with TLC to study the impact of methamphetamine on county resources.
Limited data were available about rates of use, and many agencies—some prohibited by law from keeping such records—didn’t know how many of their clients were coming to them because of methamphetamine use.
How we partnered
We created a research methodology to address the gap. To begin, we conducted key informant interviews with the district attorney, the public defender, law enforcement officials, county agency administrators, and administrators from the county hospital.
When we found that data were sparse, or nonexistent, we received approval to have county workers, paramedics, and law enforcement officers complete a short checklist for one month after every encounter they had with a client or member of the public. The checklist provided us with demographic information about the individual, and whether alcohol, meth, or other illegal substances were involved in the interaction.
We randomly selected and interviewed people who had been through treatment and tested clean for one year to undergo in-depth interviews. We also conducted ethnographic case studies of two West Kern communities that had been hit hard by the meth crisis, one with an oil-based economy and one with an agricultural one.
The outcomes of the study were stunning. Among them:
- Roughly one-quarter of all contacts with county agency staff and law enforcement included meth.
- Nearly 50% of all substance abuse clients served by Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services over the course of one year named meth as their drug of choice.
- One-third of the randomly selected patients entering the Kern Medical Center Emergency Department admitted to having used meth at least once.
- Ninety percent of the individuals in treatment that we interviewed started using meth as a teen. Half of them were under 15 years of age at the time. All of them took their first hit while under the influence of alcohol.
The study led to the birth of the Kern Stop Meth Now Coalition and local initiatives to reduce alcohol use among teens. An official at the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration called it, “one of the most comprehensive county-level studies of its kind.” The data led the County to successfully apply for a Drug-Free Communities grant.