A decade ago, Chippewa Valley law enforcement agencies sounded the alarm about what was then a new and troubling public safety threat: methamphetamine.
The illegal, highly addictive drug was spreading into west-central and northwestern Wisconsin like a disease, and police were doing everything they could to stop it from becoming an epidemic.
The all-out war on meth — including stepped-up enforcement, billboards, media campaigns, and outreach to schools and community groups — was remarkably successful.
A recent tally of the West Central Drug Task Force’s records of undercover drug purchases shows that all but two of the 50 or so transactions since early June involved methamphetamine, says Eau Claire police Sgt. Andy Falk. One of the common street names for meth is crystal meth because of its crystallized nature
“Meth all but disappeared in our area from about 2007 to 2010,” said Eau Claire police Sgt. Andy Falk, supervisor of the West Central Drug Task Force.
That was the good news. The bad news, Falk said, is that the drug is coming back with a vengeance.
“Meth is as big again in Eau Claire as it’s ever been in our history,” he said.
The drug has followed the same pattern in St. Croix County, where meth also is making a strong comeback, despite being overshadowed by a tragic streak of 12 heroin overdose deaths in the past three years that has captured community attention.
“Meth is definitely rearing its ugly head again here,” said Hudson police Sgt. Geoff Willems of the St. Croix Valley Drug Task Force.
The warnings evoke painful memories for Sue Cherrier of Chippewa Falls. The retired Bloomer High School teacher’s 20-year-old son, Justin, committed suicide in June 2002 as a result of the paranoia that stemmed from his meth addiction.
Cherrier recalled how her family’s life spun out of control after Justin, a former altar boy, Cub Scout and sports-loving all-American boy, started using meth.
As a teenager, Justin started drinking and smoking pot before turning to meth and hanging out with a much rougher crowd. That led to bizarre, uncharacteristic behavior such as lashing out at family members, teachers and employers; taking off for Florida without informing his parents; and selling off belongings to raise money to fund his habit.
“Eventually, all of his possessions, all of his CDs, everything was gone. He sold it all,” Cherrier said, adding that he also sold two vehicles his parents gave him after he convinced them he was getting his act together.
Justin came home all beaten up a couple of times, including once right before his high school prom, and ultimately got into meth-related legal trouble and spent time in jail. He tried treatment twice, running away from the treatment center the second time, and was so paranoid that he continually talked about people spying on him or planning to shoot him.
“It happens so gradually that you don’t realize you’re in a crisis until it almost hits you in the face,” Cherrier said. “It was a nightmare for our family.”
As the problems escalated, Cherrier found herself afraid of her own son.
“I was scared to be alone with him, to tell you the truth,” she said. “He just wasn’t the little boy I raised anymore.”
Cherrier said her family’s story demonstrates the destructive power of meth and explains why she is so disturbed to hear that meth is making a comeback in west-central Wisconsin.
“It’s something you think about everyday,” Cherrier said. “It’s a pain that never goes away.”
Meth’s potential to wreak havoc on both individuals and communities is a primary reason police are so determined to beat back its resurgence.
“We’re all in on the meth thing right now,” Falk said. “We’re spending a lot of our time and money on it.”
He noted that a recent tally of the West Central Drug Task Force’s records of undercover drug purchases shows that all but two of the 50 or so transactions since early June involved meth.
“It’s definitely what we’re busy with right now,” Falk said, explaining that officers make fighting meth such a high priority in part because of its propensity to drive users to commit collateral crimes such as scrap metal thefts, burglaries and home invasions.
Statewide, the number of meth cases submitted to the state crime lab for analysis rose 86 percent to 440 in 2012 and was on a similar pace in the first half of this year. Department of Justice statistics indicate 11 regional counties accounted for more than a third of the 2012 cases, with Barron County topping the list at 41. Total cases for other area counties were Buffalo, 3; Chippewa, 5; Clark, 8; Dunn, 25; Eau Claire, 14; Jackson, 3; Pierce, 18; Rusk, 20; St. Croix, 24; and Trempealeau, 3.
Falk cautioned that Eau Claire and some other counties, to save time and money, submit only a small percentage of confiscated meth samples — those from contested cases.
The drug, which can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected, also carries a high health risk to children who live with meth users, exposing them to toxic chemicals and dangerous secondhand smoke, Falk said.
Meth abuse can have many negative health consequences including severe dental problems (known as “meth mouth”), anxiety, insomnia, increased blood pressure, stroke, extreme weight loss, convulsions, brain damage, delusions (such as the sensation of insects crawling under the skin) and even death, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The synthetic stimulant also carries the additional risk of keeping users awake for days at a time.
“They really spend a lot of the time they’re awake dreaming up ways to do more meth or committing crimes to get money to buy more meth,” Falk said. “Essentially, they have twice as much time as other people to get in trouble.”
Meth’s return to the region is marked by a key change: The drug, often concocted in mom-and-pop labs from chemicals including kerosene, lye, ephedrine from cold tablets, lithium from batteries and red phosphorus from the striker plates of matchbooks during its previous incarnation, is now mostly trafficked like other illegal drugs.
In one sense, that’s a positive development because the small meth labs involved serious environmental risks and significant manpower to clean up, but it also makes the new wave of suppliers harder to catch because they tend to be highly mobile, well-organized and tight-lipped, Falk said.
Most of the meth in west-central Wisconsin comes via the Twin Cities and is bought by people who pool their money and bring the drug back to their communities for personal use or for sale, said Special Agent Jeff Kostner, an Eau Claire-based meth expert with the state Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation.
Kostner speculated that the shrinking number of high-profile meth lab seizures by agents in hazardous-materials suits probably fueled the premature perception that the meth problem had been conquered.
And now a relatively new style of meth production, often called the “one-pot method,” threatens to revive the dangers of portable meth labs, albeit in a different form.
The method, which is exploding in southwestern Wisconsin and just beginning to make inroads in west-central Wisconsin, typically involves cooks mixing up various chemicals in a plastic bottle and making batches of meth totaling about an eighth of an ounce, Kostner said. It is also known as the “shake-and bake” or “one-time” method.
“We have run into it locally, but not much yet,” he said.
Last year in west-central Wisconsin law enforcement reported five one-pot lab recovery sites in Chippewa County, one in Eau Claire County and 52 in Clark County, according to Department of Justice statistics.
A major risk associated with one-pot labs is that the cooks often carelessly dispose of the potentially dangerous waste. The seemingly harmless plastic bottles could contain a toxic brew that has the potential to explode, ignite or emit poison gas when opened or combined with water, Kostner said, noting that law enforcement officers wear full face protection and flame retardant suits and gloves when dealing with one-pot waste.
“You definitely don’t want your children going out and opening one of these things because that could be very dangerous,” he said.
But whether meth is trafficked or brewed in a sports drink bottle in the bed of a pickup, it’s back and once again at the top of the local law enforcement agenda.
The reason for the comeback is unclear, although Falk theorized it is a combination of several factors: less police and media focus on the dire consequences of meth use, the end of long prison terms for key meth suppliers, and the normal ebb and flow in the popularity of various street drugs.