When Chris Choate joined the Southwest Drug Task Force in 2012, one of the primary issues faced by task force members was meth production in the La Plata County. Now, most of the meth sold here comes from Mexico, and its use is being overshadowed by other drugs.
"The meth never left," he told parents and teachers at Wednesday night's Conversation Cafe at Bayfield High School. But now more drugs users in the area use heroin and opioids.
Opioid use "is the worst of the epidemics we have," Choate said. "It's gripped the country."
Organized by the BHS counseling staff, the Conversation Cafes have been a series of discussions about social media, adolescent depression and substance abuse in the county.
Choate, a former Bayfield marshal, said drug use is prevalent in Bayfield, but in his experience it isn't any worse or better than in other Colorado towns.
In Southwest Colorado, 43.8 percent of youths have reported using marijuana, compared with 38 percent in Colorado and 38.6 percent in the nation, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey from 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. The survey for the region covered La Plata, Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan counties.
One thing Choate has noticed is that marijuana use is starting at younger and younger ages, sometimes in middle school. Regionally, more youths tried marijuana before the age of 13 than youths in Colorado and nationwide.
Having moved from the Marshal's Office to the task force, which is comprised of several law enforcement agencies in Southwest Colorado, Choate said, "I was a bit naive about the amounts being distributed," in this area. And when the task force made arrests of local drug rings, he used to think "problem solved," but he's learned other dealers will quickly move in to meet the demand.
Choate said dealers prefer to sell heroin because its value is almost twice that of meth, so they're getting more profit. Also, heroin users have to keep a certain amount in their systems to avoid symptoms of physical withdrawal, so they need a steady supply.
"Heroin has the worst withdrawals," he said.
Regarding the legalization of marijuana, task force members believe a lot of the marijuana sold legally in Colorado is exported out of state, making it illegal.
The potency of today's marijuana is also higher than it was 20 years ago, Choate added.
"It's comparing apples and oranges," he said. "We're not talking about the same thing."
And while meth was used by a lot of people in La Plata County, heroin use crosses all socio-economic boundaries, he said.
"There's no group that's been left out," he said.