WAUSAU — Ron Glaman once saw a meth-addicted man, so high on drugs that he tore off part of his scalp with a screwdriver to get at the “meth bugs” that he was convinced were swarming over the top of his head.
When that didn’t work, the man poured gasoline on top of his head as a last resort, Glaman said. The gasoline didn’t make the bugs go away either, but high on meth, the addict felt no pain.
Glaman, a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, and local police said they are seeing a resurgence in meth use across central Wisconsin after a lull during the past few years, and they preparing for the worst.
“Meth users are unpredictable, freakishly paranoid, violent and bizarre,” Glaman said. “This is a nightmare drug. You do not want your children to try it.”
Whether you smoke it, snort it or inject it, methamphetamine is a stimulant that produces a high like no other. Users first experience intense euphoria, a sudden increase in energy and sex drive; some users report staying awake for five straight days while taking the drug continuously; some stay awake even longer.
The rush lasts for a few minutes, followed by a high that can coast for up to 16 hours. Most users binge for several days, not wanting to come down. When the high wears off, a stage investigators call “tweaking,” that’s when the trouble usually begins, as paranoia and anxiety begin to creep in.
“When users are coming off the drug, they’ll do anything to get more,” Glaman said. “They’re getting paranoid; they think someone is out to get them. That’s the point when we in law enforcement have to handle them with kid gloves.”
When the drug wears off, users crash, often lying nearly comatose for up to three days.
“One woman who knew she was about to crash locked her children in the bathroom so she knew they were safe and not running around somewhere,” Glaman said. “Three days later, those kids were still in the bathroom. It happens.”
An explosion of cases
Meth addicts often are unwittingly lured into using the drug because users don’t always know what they’re trying, said Angela Greenfield, a substance abuse counselor and social worker at North Central Health Care in Wausau, a facility that offers outpatient drug treatment. Meth has a definite negative undertone that many Americans are acutely aware of through watching TV shows like the popular drama, “Breaking Bad;” dealers go out of their way to mask what they’re really selling.
“Somewhere today, someone is going to try meth for the first time, and they won’t even know what it is,” Greenfield said. “Dealers don’t call it meth. They call it ice, or glass, or some other cutsie name that young people don’t associate with meth. They just know they’re going to get high. Six months down the road, their life is destroyed. It happens all the time.”
Marathon County Assistant District Attorney Lance Leonhard, who prosecutes most of the major drug cases in the county, said prosecutors have seen a definite spike in meth-related cases in recent years. The District Attorney’s Office prosecuted 22 meth-related cases in 2011; that number nearly doubled to 43 cases in 2012 and it’s expected to spike sharply again in 2013, Leonhard said. A combined total of 31 meth possession and meth distribution charges already were filed before June 1, putting prosecutors on track to see roughly 75 cases this year.
But drug charges alone don’t tell the whole story, Leonhard said. Related criminal cases also are on the rise, thanks to drug users who shoplift, break into houses or commit other crimes to finance their drug habits, he said.
“It’s not only the drug cases that are the issue,” Leonhard said. “We also have burglaries, robberies, an enormous amount of retail theft, and most of that is related to drug use in some way. I’ve seen figures that say as much as 75 percent of our criminal cases are connected to drugs in some way, and, in my opinion, that’s not an exaggeration.”
A shift in the supply chain
Local, large-scale meth labs are nearly a thing of the past, investigators say, thanks to tight regulations on the sale of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient used in making meth. In the past, meth manufacturers would buy SUDAFED, or other cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine, in mass quantities and cook up huge batches of the stuff, often in an abandoned home, shed, barn or other outbuilding. In 2006, then-President George W. Bush signed into law new rules that require pharmacists to limit pseudoephedrine purchases to less than nine grams per month; pharmacists now keep track of which customers buy the drugs, and customers are required to show identification when they make a purchase, even with a prescription.
“Meth users used to steal entire shelves full of SUDAFED to cook up these huge batches,” Glaman said. “Now, pharmacists keep it behind the counter, so they can’t do that anymore. They just can’t make those big batches like they used to.”
The legislation set off a flurry of activity with Mexican drug cartels that were only too happy to begin smuggling meth created in “superlabs” outside of the U.S. to meet the demand. Drug cartels respond to the same market pressures as legitimate businesses; they often have business plans, create supplies to meet demands, and operate solely to make a profit, Glaman said.
Once in the country, the meth travels up a pipeline to Midwestern states; much of the meth found in central Wisconsin is filtered through Asian gangs in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area, he said.
Marathon County Sheriff’s Lt. Gary Schneck, who spearheads the county’s special investigations unit, said drugs imported from Mexico are relatively easy to get and cost about $100 per gram. The amount each user needs to get high varies widely; some have a habit that costs hundreds of dollars a day to maintain, he said.
“It’s all expensive,” Schneck said. “And, of course, it’s all a big waste of money.”
Meth is made “anywhere and everywhere”
While the old meth labs required hundreds of pseudoephedrine pills, investigators now are seeing most cookers using what they call the “shake and bake” or “one-pot” method, which requires only a few cold pills and is extremely portable.
In the one-pot method, pills are mixed with common, but noxious, household chemicals, along with lithium stripped from batteries, and then poured into an empty, two-liter soda bottle. The chemical reaction produces enough meth for the user — and, sometimes a friend — to get a few hits.
The recipe is simple, but potentially deadly; lithium can easily ignite, causing an explosion; pressure inside the bottle also can cause an explosion.
“Where is meth being made? It’s being made anywhere and everywhere,” Glaman said. “It’s in homes. It’s in hotels, motels, apartments and homes. It’s in public restrooms.”
Some users throw the mixture into a ditch along the highway; in 45 minutes, Glaman said, they return to collect the bottle.
“If the bottle didn’t explode, they’ve made their meth, and they didn’t even have to be there to make it,” Glaman said.
Treatment vs. incarceration
Despite the dramatic brain damage meth use causes, recovery from meth addiction is possible, but users have a tough road ahead of them to stay clean. Most meth addicts show impulsive behavior and have difficulty with any kind of delayed gratification; they are commonly unemployed and are in poor physical health, said Dr. Randy Brown, director at the Center for Addictive Disorders at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison.
“Treatment depends on a number of factors,” Brown said. “Mental illness can play a role. Their history of drug use can play a role. But really what matters is having a good, solid support system that can make recovery much more successful.”
Meth dealers don’t give up on their customers easily, Greenfield said, because they don’t want to lose business; their aggressiveness often hampers an addict’s efforts at recovery.
“Dealers are relentless,” Greenfield said. “They come to your work. They knock on your door. They just don’t give up.”
Leonhard said his office takes a tough stance on drug crimes, but recognizes that addicts need treatment, sometimes more than they need incarceration.
“Possession of methamphetamine is a felony, but our first option is always to try for probation and treatment,” Leonhard said. “Never in my seven years in this position have I sent someone with a first-offense drug possession charge to prison. Never. Our goal is to get someone treatment first.”
A typical first-time offender charged with possession of methamphetamine is placed on probation, but some addicts choose to turn down probation and spend four to nine months in jail instead, Leonhard said.
“Probation isn’t easy; there is always a treatment component and there’s some kind of drug monitoring,” Leonhard said. “That being said, some people don’t want to quit. They don’t want treatment. And it takes no effort whatsoever to sit 180 days in jail.”