Comments Off on Methamphetamine and heroin in Walworth County: two epidemics linked

Walworth County law enforcement and health officials were reeling from heroin and opiate overdose deaths.

Then meth arrived.

Now, the two drugs provide a troubling, time-consuming and resource-intensive one-two punch for those on the front lines of two epidemics.

“We have been experiencing … an influx of methamphetamine over the last couple of years,” Capt. Robert Hall, who heads up the Walworth County Drug Unit, said at a recent event.

“It’s something that really hit us out of the blue. We had primarily been focusing on heroin. That was really ravaging the community.”

The drugs do damage differently.

Heroin can slow your breathing so much it stops.

Meth can keep you wired and running without sleep for weeks.

Heroin is a highly addictive opiate that delivers an initial euphoria that fades to a “twilight state of sleep and wakefulness,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Overdoses cause slow and shallow breathing, blue lips and fingernails, convulsions and possible death.

Methamphetamine is the opposite but also highly addictive. It dramatically increases energy, spiking a user’s heart rate and blood pressure. Chronic meth use has led to psychosis, mania, paranoia, hallucinations and more violent and sexual behavior.

Walworth County law enforcement, legal and public health officials have been holding events throughout the county to share what trends they’re seeing and the dangers they create.

The drugs are opposites, but the epidemics are related.


The local street prices for meth and heroin are similar–about $100 per gram of meth and $80 to $100 per gram of heroin.

Meth has one important difference, however, that could explain how a user transitions to it from heroin.

Meth is synthetic. It can be manufactured by anyone using ingredients, such as cold medicine and camp fuel, available at most drug and hardware stores.

Heroin is derived from plants. “Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants,” grown in southern Asia, Mexico and Colombia, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Making meth is cheap—a “poor man’s drug,” as Hall calls it—especially if some of the ingredients are shoplifted. And shoplifting might be easier than breaking into a home to support a heroin addiction.

“What we are seeing are individuals who have been addicted to heroin in the past who now no longer have the wherewithal to go out to keep stealing, burglarizing and getting caught over and over again for those crimes,” Hall said. “They’re now being taught by individuals to cook methamphetamine.”

It works like this: Supporting a heroin addiction is expensive. A user needs another way to pay the dealer. The dealer suggests the user pick up some ingredients to make meth because there are laws limiting how much pseudoephedrine a user can buy at one time or in one month.

The dealer then teaches the user how to make meth. The user makes the meth, gives it to the dealer and gets the coveted heroin in return.

“Those are some of the dynamics we’ve seen over the last year,” Hall said.

The investigations related to the two drugs are connected, too.

In 2014, before the meth boom, the Walworth County Drug Unit made one meth arrest and 74 heroin-related arrests.

Fast-forward to 2016, and the unit made 31 arrests for heroin and 29 for meth.

Is that because Walworth County saw less heroin and more meth? Not necessarily.

Hall has said investigating meth is so time-consuming, it has taken drug unit members away from other cases.

Two meth-making cases investigated by the drug unit wrapped up this spring, ending with Judge Kristine Drettwan sentencing Bryan Tidwell and Patrick Gerber each to three years in prison.

Defense lawyers for both men argued that if their clients had been in court for heroin crimes, they would have been treated more sympathetically, that treatment would have been more of a concern than prison.

Drettwan drew a key distinction: meth making can create explosions, harming innocent neighbors or bystanders. A meth lab explosion Jan. 9 at The Cove of Lake Geneva hotel sent two police officers to the hospital for chemical smoke inhalation.

But, as the lawyers for Gerber and Tidwell argued, should an addiction to meth be treated differently than an addiction to heroin?


Not every local heroin user got involved with meth to sell it, said Katie Behl, Walworth County Treatment Court coordinator.

“I’ve heard from (treatment court) participants that there was this thought for a while that was out there that meth was the cure to heroin addiction,” Behl said. “I think it (meth) was just becoming more readily available, that someone would go to their dealer looking for heroin or pills or whatever, and they’d be like, ‘Here, have some meth.’ And it was so cheap that they could just give them like free samples. And now they’re a meth client.”

Some heroin addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms have turned to meth to cope.

The 2016 Wisconsin Methamphetamine Study, a 78-page report published in November, lists anecdotal reports from 10 Wisconsin meth users on why they began using the drug.

One such story, from a man between 18 and 25 years old, said his drug use accelerated after receiving OxyContin for a broken foot. Then he moved to heroin and eventually started using meth as an upper after using heroin, the report reads.

“At least people who use meth are not dying left and right from overdoses,” the man said of his meth use.

Walworth County officials are concerned about meth because of the damage it can do to others and the environment. Beyond its capacity to explode, each pound of meth produces 5 to 7 pounds of hazardous waste, said Ashley Vickers, public health emergency preparedness coordinator, at an April 11 meth awareness training in Lake Geneva.

Heroin, however, is more deadly.

Four people died from heroin in 2016 in Walworth County, according to data from the state Department of Health Services.

Dawn Kiernan of the Walworth County Medical Examiner’s Office said the county recorded six heroin-related deaths in 2015.

Local officials said they are unaware of any meth-related deaths in the county.

Although meth might not be as lethal, meth can have severe and long-lasting effects on the brain, Behl said, citing a presentation at a meth conference she recently attended.

She said meth treatment should include abstinence for 18 months with six months of aftercare. This treatment model had better effects than shorter programs, she said.

“In studies of chronic users, severe structural and functional changes have been found in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in these individuals,” Behl said in an email. “Some of these brain changes persist long after meth use has stopped.”

Still, she said, by and large treating a meth addiction is not much different than treating one to heroin. One of the few differences she mentioned, however, includes the lack of medications to treat meth addiction or overdose.

Replacement therapies for opiate addictions have proven to help addicts with withdrawal symptoms, said Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director of the Walworth County Department of Health & Human Services. This includes Suboxone and Methadone.

Nevicosi said the department has had few meth cases, so he’s not as familiar with meth treatments. He said some elements of treatment, such as strong social support, tend to have positive effects with a lot of substance addictions.

Research is lacking on how to treat meth addictions, Nevicosi and Behl said. This is also true to an extent with heroin, Nevicosi said, who called the lack of research “frustrating.”

The number of deaths from heroin are known and better understood, but Behl said she doesn’t know what happens to kids whose parents made meth in the home when the drug was around the state in the early 2000s.

“Where’s the follow-up studies on this?” Behl asked. “These kids were literally testing positive for meth in their system because the fumes were so strong … What are those impacts on those children today?”

In 2016, the Walworth County had five child protective services cases where one or both parents were involved in making meth.

The five cases involved eight children.



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