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‘Flooded with meth': Law enforcement talks about a growing epidemic

In August 2015, the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, along with Twin Cities law enforcement agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration, seized 86 pounds of methamphetamine in a collaborative effort. (Submitted photo)

Since 2011, methamphetamine availability in Wisconsin has grown 250 to 300 percent, according to a recent study. It doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has seen firsthand the devastation the drug commonly called meth can cause.

Officers have had to deal with stash houses, meth labs and drugs coming into the area from as far away as Mexican cartels.

On Jan. 5, Gov. Scott Walker called for a special legislative session to fight heroin and opioid addiction. He also ordered multiple state agencies to step up efforts to fight heroin and opioid abuse.

Pierce County Lt. Wade Strain believes heroin and opioids are an issue in the state and county, but are more prevalent in eastern Wisconsin. In western Wisconsin, especially along the Minnesota border, meth is more of an issue.

“Well, your possession of marijuana and meth are the main two,” Strain said. “Much more so than heroin. The officers will come across that on traffic stops, whether it be issues of burglary or things like that, arrests.”

A “2016 Wisconsin Methamphetamine Study,” conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center, and Southeast Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center, echoed Strain’s comments. The majority of meth making its way into western Wisconsin comes from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Wisconsin/Iowa border has also been identified as an entry point for drugs coming from southern California in semi-trucks.

Between 2011-2015, the survey reported that meth-related arrests in the state increased 225 percent on average, with the highest numbers in western Wisconsin.

A Wisconsin Court System Circuit Court Access Program analysis showed that simple meth possession charges increased by 286 percent between 2010 and 2014, while possession charges with intent to manufacture, distribute or deliver increased by 167 percent in Wisconsin; in comparison, heroin charges increased by 120 percent.

In Pierce County, there were 47 criminal felony cases related to possession of methamphetamines in 2016.

A change in landscape

Strain has been with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office for 27 years and has never seen meth as big of an issue as it is now.

“Probably last couple, three years,” Strain said. “You know it’s on the fringes — we’re right on the edge of the cities here, and you know essentially part of the metro unit. For us, the majority is meth. They know they’ve got people here that’ll use it — it’ll get here.”

The Wisconsin State Patrol reported that meth-related cases rose by 136 percent from 2010 to 2014; arrests by that agency increased by 189 percent while grams of meth seized jumped 1,592 percent. Most arrests came near the northwestern Wisconsin and Minnesota border.

A Pierce County investigator, who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of the work, said doctors once frequently prescribed opiates for pain. When they began cutting back on those prescriptions, some addicts began seeking out heroin and meth.

“I think kind of looking back at it, based on training, there was a lot of doctors supplying pain kills, pain meds out there,” the investigator said. “It got these people hooked. Now all of the sudden there’s all this clamping down on these doctors and now people couldn’t get the pain pills. In comes heroin.”

A lack of education, in the investigator’s opinion, has stifled a generation of people who aren’t fully aware of how deadly these drugs can be.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 22 years,” the investigator said. “There used to be … education material that was out there. Meth, you saw the billboards, you know, here’s before and after on meth. You seen it on TV, on commercials and stuff.”

Pierce County Sgt. Chad Koranda, a 12-year veteran on the force, said the battles with addiction are some of the most difficult things he’s seen in the county.

“That addiction is so strong they will do whatever they can,” Koranda said. “When the drugs run out, the addiction doesn’t.”

The way meth is obtained has changed in recent years. “Superlabs,” run by cartels in Mexico, are responsible for the majority of meth being distributed in the U.S. Locally produced meth labs aren’t as common anymore. In Pierce and St. Croix counties, no meth labs are recorded, according to the survey.

“I haven't seen a lab in years,” the investigator said. “We hear of them every so often.”

An expensive habit

Meth abuse is costly, for the addicts and the state.

According to a RAND Corporation Study, the nationwide economic cost of meth in 2005 was $23.4 billion. Economic costs considered were consequences such as the burden of addiction, premature death, drug treatment, lost productivity, crime and criminal justice, health care, production and environmental hazards, child endangerment and more. For Wisconsin, the likely cost was $424.3 million in 2005, with $76.3 million stemming from the courts and criminal justice system.

Strain said the cost of drugs has been heavy on the department as well.

“The financial issues involved, the court systems, the officers’ time spent, the burglaries and thefts as a result of because ‘I need my next hit and I’m stealing from you to get money here to pay this guy for drugs,’ which will create more issues,” Strain said.

The investigator said during early days on the job, when meth was made in local labs, it was expensive.

“When I first came in, meth was expensive,” the investigator said. “You couldn’t buy an 8-ball, which is 3.5 grams, for under $250; it was $250 to $300. Now it’s like a $150. I’ve seen ounces go from $1,500 to $650 an ounce now.”

The investigator and Koranda both said it’s common for meth addicts to steal scrap metal or other possessions, go to a pawn shop, sell the items and drive to Minneapolis and St. Paul to buy drugs.

The investigator said of the meth addict world: there’s no love lost.

“Unwritten rules on the street in the meth world: when you go to jail we divide your stuff up,” the investigator said. “When you get out, you have nothing, so you try to get your stuff back.”

The investigator has arrested people who have asked to have their possessions secured so when they get out of jail all of their belongings aren’t gone.

“There’s no honor model,” the investigator said. “There’s no friends — friendship doesn’t mean anything. Your friend is the dope.”

No answers coming

PCSO is working closely with the Twin Cities and St. Croix Valley drug task forces to fight meth and heroin epidemics.

As projected in the survey, the officers don’t see meth’s rise stopping anytime soon.

“We’re flooded with meth,” the investigator said. “Absolutely flooded with meth.”

Strain understands that eliminating drugs altogether is unattainable, but the PCSO will never stop trying to cut down on the growing number of users.

“Just the prevalence of it alone and the addiction, the time frame for someone to become addicted could take just one hit,” Strain said. “Unfortunately there are people making decisions on a daily basis from a standpoint of being under the influence. That, itself, is kind of a problem.”

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series by Herald reporter Matt Lambert on methamphetamine use and its effects.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism.