The use of methamphetamine, a powerful and addictive stimulant, appears to be on the rise in both Walworth and Rock counties, officials said.
Before 2015, the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office saw only a handful of methamphetamine cases, but in 2015, the number of meth arrests rose, District Attorney Dan Necci said.
“Methamphetamine activity spiked dramatically in 2015,” Necci said while looking at a stack of meth files going back nearly a decade spread across his office floor.
A stack of 17 files sat in the 2015 pile while fewer than a handful covered the years back to 2008.
“Just anecdotally sitting in this chair doing all the drug cases, I think I had one meth case before this year … and now it’s coming,” Necci said.
Rock County deputies have been seeing signs of an increase, as well, said Capt. Todd Christiansen of the sheriff’s office.
“It’s here, unfortunately, in Rock County,” Christiansen said.
Most of the Rock County charges have been for possession of the drug, Christiansen said.
The only recent meth-manufacturing case in Rock County was in Janesville, one block from the county courthouse. Christiansen said before that, the only lab he can remember was a small-scale operation in the town of Beloit in April 2013.
State officials in 2013 called the town of Beloit operation an isolated incident. Before that, Rock County had not had a reported meth lab since 2006, officials said at the time.
Christiansen said he suspects most of the meth is coming in from rural manufacturers in Green and Lafayette counties and perhaps some imported from Mexico. “
It’s increasing. We’ve probably, in last two years, been seeing just a little bit more. We haven’t been seeing anything like the lab in the city (of Janesville), but it’s been moving in,” Christiansen said.
The lab discovered Jan. 3 in an apartment at 418 St. Lawrence Ave. in Janesville, like many rural labs, involved mixing store-bought chemicals in bottles, the so-called one-pot or shake-and-bake method.
About 10 years ago, Walworth County would find a meth lab once every three years, Walworth County Drug Unit Sgt. Jeff Patek said.
Patek said about 80 percent of the people facing meth charges in the county tie back to the same group of people or the same person who hopped house to house, staying with people and teaching them how to cook meth. This ultimately led to other people becoming addicted, he said.
The 2015 meth cases in Walworth County stem from a handful of meth lab busts across the county. Most involved more than one person making meth for personal consumption.
The majority of the methamphetamine manufacturing is for personal consumption, using the shake-and-bake method of cooking, Necci said.
Cooking meth involves combining poisonous, explosive and flammable chemicals.
The shake-and-bake method is especially dangerous. It combines various chemicals in a bottle. The bottle is then shaken until the meth separates from the liquid and is filtered out. It is highly flammable.
The question of why people choose to use, produce and distribute meth puzzles law enforcement and attorneys.
Alan Hunsader is a special agent with the state Department of Justice Clandestine Lab Enforcement team, a group of trained law enforcement officers who specialize in going into residences where hazardous meth labs and manufacturing ingredients are found.
Hunsader has been a member of the team since 2000. He’s been across the state and seen all sizes of meth production labs. He is based out of the Fox Valley area but has traveled to Walworth and Green counties for meth lab raids.
He said the “hottest area probably seems to be down by Walworth.”
It’s difficult to say why, in 2015, there was a surge in meth related arrests and charges in Walworth County, but Hunsader said drug trafficking is not confined by borders, and drugs can stay hidden for a long time before becoming a noticeable problem.
“It has evolved to a statewide problem, and it seems like 2015 has been a very big year for labs down in your area,” Hunsader said.
In the Fox Valley area, 2014 was a big year for single-pot meth labs.
“I think the problem is everywhere, it’s just where it is revealing itself. …Very often when you find one, you find many.”
The Gazette requested numbers of methamphetamine cases in Rock and Walworth counties from each clerk of courts office.
Necci raised concern about the numbers the offices provided because of how statutes are represented in online court records.
Figures from the Rock and Walworth county district attorney’s offices could not be obtained by press time.
Hunsader said he doesn’t know why people choose the highly addictive, corrosive drug.
The schedule II narcotic rots teeth, causes weight and memory loss, ages users and causes psychological problems.
Hunsader said he’s heard that when heroin use goes up in a community, methamphetamine can be “right around the corner.”
He said he has seen people mix heroin and meth and inject it together.
Rock County’s Christiansen said heroin remains at the top of the list for the harder drugs used in Rock County.
“For a while, crack cocaine had kind of disappeared, but it’s back; it’s on its way up, and unfortunately, we’re seeing more and hearing more about meth,” Christiansen said.
Christiansen also had no theory about why meth use is increasing. He suggested anyone who sees how the drug can destroy a body would be frightened to try it.
Janesville police officer Jeff Winiarski, who worked on Janesville’s recent meth lab case, said heroin use is strong here because of low heroin prices.
Janesville is on the Interstate system, which is used as heroin-trafficking routes linking Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, Winiarski noted.
“It’s cheaper to get heroin than anything else, for people that are into that,” Winiarski said.
Winiarski has heard from counterparts in more rural counties where the price of heroin is three to four times what it is in Janesville.
And it’s rural counties where methamphetamine often dominates the illicit drug trade.
Travis Schwantes, office manager and assistant public defender of the Walworth County Public Defender’s Office, was a public defender in Minnesota between 2001 and 2009.
From 2001-05, methamphetamine “was the only drug we really saw” in Minnesota, he said.
Schwantes’ clients from the rural suburbs of the Twin Cities said they used meth to work long, hours, party, enhance sex and lose weight.
Schwantes recalled meth users whose appearances were drastically altered and would “end up looking like skeletons” because of the highly addictive drug.
“You see versions of that with other drugs but nothing so severe as with meth,” Schwantes said.
Users span all socioeconomic statuses and ages, Patek said.
In 2006, nationwide legislation went into effect limiting the amount of cold medicine with pseudoephedrine people could by. Pseudoephedrine is a common methamphetamine ingredient.
The limitations seemed to help in western Wisconsin, where in the late 1990s and early 2000s some counties were “run over with meth labs” of massive scale, Hunsader said.
Then, about five to six years ago, the state began to see an uptick in one-pot cooks, Hunsader said.
Schwantes recalled clients who got around the restrictions on pseudoephedrine by having teams of people buying it from a circuit of stores.
In Wisconsin, a gram of methamphetamine that has come in from Mexico through the drug cartels and made its way from the Twin Cities and eastward, costs between $125 and $150, Hunsader said.
In Walworth County, a gram of methamphetamine can cost between $120 and $150, Patek said.
The uptick in meth incidents may also be due to more training by the Walworth County Drug Unit, Patek said.
Last year, the unit began training more local police, first responders, probation and parole agents, health and human services workers and other professionals on what meth looks like and how to spot it, Patek said.
The ease of making methamphetamine is another draw, several people said.
People can look up recipes, directions and tips online. All the ingredients can be purchased at local big box stores.
Walworth County authorities have seen some higher quality meth they suspect was made outside the county or in a different state or country. The source of the higher-grade methamphetamine is not known, Necci said.
Mexican and Asian cartels are moving methamphetamine across the Mexican border to Chicago and the Twin Cities using established drug routes. The cartels’ deliveries of methamphetamine have been on the rise since 2006, when the stricter pseudoephedrine regulations went into effect.
Authorities aren’t sure how to address the growing popularity of methamphetamine.
Necci plans to reach out to prosecutors in northern Wisconsin, where methamphetamine has grown in popularity, to get a glimpse of what law enforcement is seeing, what they are doing and what users may be saying about their motivations.
“I believe that we as a law enforcement community, as a criminal justice community, we need to reach out to other communities who have been dealing with this and find some of this stuff out,” Necci said. “I think it will help everyone do their job better.”