It’s hard out here for a cop — or a health care worker or social service provider, for that matter.

Opiate use and mental health calls for service are both up in San Diego County, according to new studies from the San Diego Association of Governments. And data from The Urban Institute released this month shows San Diego had the largest underground drug economy, and the third largest combined black market (drugs, guns and sex) among eight major U.S. cities.

Here are some of the most troubling revelations from the studies.

Drug Use

• Ten percent of men booked into jail in San Diego County in 2012 tested positive for opiates (heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and Codeine), up from 5 percent in 2002. Twelve percent of women booked tested positive in 2012, up from 6 percent ten years earlier.

• Twenty-six percent of adult arrestees reported having tried heroin, up from 17 percent in 2002. Of those who’d used in the last year, 79 percent said it was “very easy” or “easy” to get.

• Officials attributed an increase in heroin use to a rise in prescription painkiller abuse. “From interviews with people in jail,” SANDAG director of criminal justice research Cynthia Burke said, “we learned that heroin is often used as a substitute for prescription opiates because it’s relatively cheap and easy to obtain.”

• And talk about a gateway drug: One in four arrestees who said they’d ever tried heroin reported using prescription opiates first. Just under two-thirds of these individuals said they switched to heroin because it was cheaper and more available.

Mental Health

• Four local law enforcement agencies reported 22,315 calls for mental health-related services (e.g., attempted suicides) in 2013, up from 14,442 in 2008. That’s a somewhat steady increase of 55 percent in five years.

• A few factors could have contributed here, SANDAG pointed out:

While the exact reasons for these increases are difficult to determine, possible factors include limited resources from the state and the expectation that officers and deputies respond to mental health crises; an increase in Independent Living Facilities (ILFs) in some communities, which provide housing to individuals with mental health issues, but which are not licensed and managed by the state; stressful economic conditions; and the release of non-violent offenders from detention facilities who may have mental health issues.

The Sex Trade

• According to The Urban Institute’s research, San Diego’s sex trade brought in $97 million in 2007; beating out the drug trade ($96 million) and the gun trade ($48 million).

• The sizes of the sex and drugs markets decreased since 2003, when they were $124 million and $105 million, respectively. (The guns trade increased slightly, up from $46.6 million in 2003.)

• Gang involvement in sex trafficking and prostitution was on the rise for five of the cities studied. Of the eight cities surveyed, San Diego “has uncovered the most amount of gang involvement in the underground commercial sex economy”:

According to one San Diego law enforcement agency, only 25 percent of the persons that they arrested for pimping were documented gang members. However, they believed the statistic should be closer to 80 percent, since many young men wear gang colors, are involved in violent acts, and make statements that they are gang members. Because they are not documented by the police as being part of a gang, they cannot be referred to as a documented gang member.

• A growing trend in day-to-day operations for pimps and sex trade pros: the use of refillable cash cards, most commonly Green Dot cards, to purchase online ads, hotel rooms and gas. They’re considered cash, and the deposit is untraceable.

• One noteworthy bit from the institute’s anecdotal data: how pimps spend their money. Transportation and housing made up the bulk of their expenditures. Criminals — they’re just like us.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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