Doreen Rivard couldn’t figure out why the light bulbs kept disappearing.
Was it that hard to replace them when they burned out?
And why was she finding the insides of pens all over the place? She asked her boys what they were doing with the pens.
“They said, ‘Shooting spitballs,’ and I believed them,” Rivard said.
It took months before she could understand and accept the truth: her teen boys and their friends were using the pen tubes and light bulbs to smoke methamphetamine in her home in Star Prairie in St. Croix County in northwestern Wisconsin.
Rivard’s nightmare started in 2004 when methamphetamine was spreading like a rash into western Wisconsin from Iowa and Minnesota. St. Croix and Polk counties along the Mississippi River were among the hardest hit, according to state Department of Justice data.
Methamphetamine still is a problem in that area, said Steve Kirt, the behavioral health administrator with the St. Croix County Human Services Department, but it’s a different kind of problem than it was five years ago.
“It receded into the shadows, so to speak,” Kirt said.
A recent methamphetamine bust in Beloit prompted The Gazette to call Rivard, Kirt and others to learn how methamphetamine use compares to heroin, a highly addictive drug that burst on the scene in Rock County in 2008 and has held tight since.
Police in January intercepted a 17-ounce package of methamphetamine on its way to Beloit from Shanghai. Police think the methamphetamine was for local distribution, Rock County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Todd Christiansen said at the time.
The bust at the home on Ninth Street is the first major methamphetamine seizure in the county in collective memory, Christiansen said.
The seizure is a concern, but it is not necessarily a sign that methamphetamine use is on the rise in Rock County, said Dave Spakowicz, the director of eastern region field operations for the Division of Criminal Investigation at the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
None of the people interviewed said methamphetamine was harder on a community than heroin.
“They’re both just devastating,” Spakowicz said.
Two ends of the spectrum
Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that keeps users awake for 36 hours or more. They stay high until their bodies can’t take any more, and then they sleep for hours on end.
Methamphetamine users are violent and unpredictable, Spakowicz said. They pose a safety threat to police and others, he said.
Methamphetamine is hard on a person’s body, Spakowicz said. It is a synthetic drug manufactured from household or industrial chemicals. Among other things, it contains lye, Coleman fuel, lithium from batteries and iodine.
It’s caustic and leaves people scratching at the feeling of bugs crawling on their bodies, Spakowicz said.
Why would anyone try such a drug?
In the beginning, the stimulant effects of methamphetamine make people feel they can accomplish anything, Kirt said. Attorneys use it to work longer hours. Students use it to study more. Housewives use it to multitask, he said.
Heroin’s effect is the opposite. Heroin users typically are not violent. Heroin depresses the central nervous system, and users tend to stay put until it is time to find cash for their next use, Spakowicz said.
Heroin users are more likely to fatally overdose than methamphetamine users, he said. They are harder to identify than methamphetamine users, who tend to be agitated and often have rotting teeth or sores on their skin.
Methamphetamine users are out and about more, Spakowicz said. A meth user would be more likely to conduct a home invasion or an armed robbery, Spakowicz said.
“The opiate abuser thinks, ‘I’ll just go to Home Depot, steal a drill and get four bags of heroin,” he said. “They’re two ends of the spectrum.”
Kirt thinks addiction is addiction, no matter the drug. The best thing a community can do is educate children to avoid tobacco, alcohol or drugs, he said. Focusing on one drug such as methamphetamine won’t solve the problem, he said.
“Janesville may never have a meth problem, but they’ll have their own version of it,” Kirt said. “That’s not going to end.”
‘Meth just scares people here’
For the time being, southern Wisconsin remains under a “bubble” of limited methamphetamine use compared to other parts of the state, said Sgt. Nate Clark, a Wisconsin State Patrol supervisor with the Milwaukee High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. That is a federally funded program that allows the state patrol to partner with local law enforcement agencies. HIDTA covers much of southeastern Wisconsin including Rock County.
“Southeastern Wisconsin has been exempt from the scourge that is plaguing the rest of the nation, including northwestern Wisconsin,” Clark said.
Clark thinks people learned about the dangers of meth before the drug dug in.
“Generally, the individuals we talk to—drug dealers and users—they were aware of how bad it was,” Clark said. “Meth just scares people here. It didn’t get here in time before people found out how deadly it was.”
When law enforcement agents find methamphetamine in southeastern Wisconsin, it tends to be in small amounts for personal use. They occasionally find small samples inside large shipments of cocaine or marijuana, Clark said.
“Dealers are getting free samples from distributors,” Clark said.
It will take continued work to keep major methamphetamine use out of southeastern Wisconsin, he said. In the Milwaukee HIDTA, training and focus this year will be on methamphetamine the way it was on heroin in previous years, Clark said.
From his perspective as a law enforcement agent who focuses on narcotics, the threat of methamphetamine is a big deal, he said.
“As soon as we see meth show up, we zone in on it like it’s the biggest threat out there,” Clark said. “The truth is we will fail if the public doesn’t fight back. We truly will.”
‘You find another way’
In northwestern Wisconsin, the primary reason for the change in the methamphetamine scene has been legislation controlling the purchase of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, Kirt said. When the methamphetamine ingredient became harder to get starting in 2005 in Wisconsin, many of the local labs disappeared, Kirt said.
The local labs were big, had to dispose of a lot of unique waste and smelled bad, he said. They weren’t terribly hard to find.
When a lab was busted, one or two people would be arrested for methamphetamine production or distribution. As part of a plea agreement, they would give up the names of another 15 or 20 people involved, he said.
Fewer busted labs means fewer arrests, Kirt said. That doesn’t mean people are no longer using methamphetamine, he said.
“You don’t just stop because the drug’s unavailable,” Kirt said. “You find another way of getting it.”
These days, dealers are getting methamphetamine shipped from out of state, usually from the Southwest or Mexico, he said.
Alternatively, they make it in small batches using what’s called a “one-pot” method. These labs are harder to find, Kirt said.
“They don’t have the odor or the disposal of cans that you had with the earlier methods,” Kirt said.
In 2011, out of 31 labs, busted in Wisconsin, 17 were one-pot labs, Spakowicz said. In 2012, out of 32 labs busted, 28 were one-pot labs, he said.
In April 2012, a long-time town of Beloit resident was charged with manufacturing methamphetamines using the one-pot method in his garage on West Alpine Drive. At the time, authorities called it an isolated incident.
“In the mom and pop labs, they would make up to an ounce at a time,” Spakowicz said. “With one-pot, you’re making two to three grams at a time, but it adds up.”
Rivard said the change in the production scene lead to a false sense that things were getting better.
“For a while, it seemed like meth was sort of going away,” Rivard said. “You didn’t hear a lot about it, not like between 2004 and 2007. Now, it’s very prevalent here again.”
Rivard’s sons had been living at home when they were using, she said. The signs were all around her, but she never saw them.
One son used methamphetamine for at least 18 months. Another used for several years and turned to alcohol abuse, she said.
Rivard was blindsided when her oldest son overdosed on methamphetamine in 2004. She mistakenly thought he would quit using after that.
In 2005, her second son was arrested in a drug raid. He was 17 when Rivard knew for a fact he was using methamphetamine.
This time around, Rivard was ready to accept facts.
“I didn’t learn very much from my oldest son’s experience,” Rivard said. “With my youngest son, I learned really quick. I’d never been to court before. I didn’t even know anyone who’d been to jail before.”
Rivard started going to court weekly to watch drug cases. She read armloads of books. She attended group meetings and founded Moms and Dads Against Meth, an advocacy group.
When her neighbor’s son, who had been a methamphetamine user, killed himself, local parents decided they weren’t doing enough, Rivard said.
Rivard in 2007 helped found Butterfly House, a transitional living facility for women in St. Croix Falls in Polk County. They started the project with $245, she said.
Rivard has lived at the facility since it opened, she said. She still goes weekly to observe drug court in Polk County, she said.
Most of the women who go to the facility are recovering methamphetamine addicts. She has had clients from 17 to 59 years old, Rivard said.
“I would say there is not a typical meth user,” she said. “I was kind of surprised at the large amount of women in their 40s that came in.”
A handful of Butterfly House clients are addicted to opiate-based prescription painkillers. An even smaller number are recovering heroin addicts, and many of those are from southcentral Wisconsin, including Janesville, she said.
Rivard’s description of the drug climate in Polk County is the opposite of how many might describe the scene in Rock County.
“What I keep hearing about heroin is that it’s around, it’s coming and it’s not going to be good,” Rivard said. “Still, though, our biggest problem is meth. We’ve gotten a couple women recovering from heroin at the house, but they have come from down by you.”
Rivard said she wishes someone had told her to learn about methamphetamine before it came into her life.
“I would like everyone first of all to learn about it before it happens, because you think it will never happen to your kids,” she said. “I made myself so sick with not knowing.”