In 2003, then-Wright County Sheriff Gary Miller estimated that 80 percent of the prisoners in the Wright County Jail were there because of methamphetamine.
From manufacturers to sellers to users to those who committed crimes to help support their habit, it was a drug that was gaining a stronghold in Wright County a ruining lives.
It was this concern that created MEADA (Methamphetamine Education And Drug Aware) in 2004 – a project that would prove to be extremely successful in banding communities together to limit the spread of the drug use in Wright County.
Things have improved significantly in that regard over the decade since, but current Sheriff Joe Hagerty said the meth epidemic was something law enforcement had never seen before.
“Everything back then was about meth,” Hagerty said. “That was probably an accurate number. You had the people who were making it, selling it or using it, but just about every robbery, mail theft or home invasion involved someone who was addicted to meth and needed to get money to pay for their habit.”
Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly was one of the founding members of MEADA and, just as law enforcement was getting deluged with prisoners, so too was the criminal justice system because the meth problem was showing no signs of loosening its grip on Wright County.
“When we created MEADA back in 2004, I came up with a little saying – meth robs your liberty, kidnaps your soul and holds you prisoner,” Kelly said. “It was a major issue. There was a time during that period where 72 percent of kids that were put in a foster care setting or out of home placement was because of methamphetamine. That’s a huge number.”
What made methamphetamine such a problem was that users weren’t the standard idea of those who would be drug addicts.
It happened to young, old, wealthy, poor, men, women. It truly ran that gamut of society.
“It happened with all cross-sections of the community,” Hagerty said. “Socioeconomic lines were crossed. People who had been successful that had strong families. It was a drug like no other we had ever dealt with. It was truly the devil’s drug. It would grab a user on just one use and the addictive power of that drug was unbelievable. It was a scourge”
One of the primary problems in Wright County was that, back in 2002-03, the county was a hotbed for meth labs. In that era, it wasn’t unusual to discover an abandoned meth lab or two every week.
Those cooking meth had to do it in a wide open area because of the smell and the hazardous chemicals used in its production. At first, the county was taken a bit by surprise when uncovering a lab, but, as time went by, the problem kept growing exponentially.
“It came into Wright County extremely fast,” Hagerty said. “It went from being ‘what is methamphetamine?’ to having a full-blown problem within a matter of months. When we saw how fast it was spreading and how horrible the consequences of this drug was. That was the genesis of MEADA in Wright County.”
One of the turning points came in 2006, when Minnesota passed a state law that took ephedrine – an active ingredient in meth – and put it behind drug store counter and making people who bought drugs like Sudafed to present identification.
By taking the main ingredient away from those cooking meth, it became difficult to manufacture locally. But, it didn’t stop there.
MEADA was so successful in combating meth addiction because it brought all the key players in communities together. Individually, law enforcement, school districts and parents could try to combat the problem. But, as a united front, they created power in numbers.
“We got buy-ins throughout the county,” Hagerty said. “Just about every school and city got involved and, what made it so successful here was that we got parents and families involved to educate them on the dangers and the warning signs. You never know how successful a program you’re trying to run will be because you need people to buy in for it to be successful. We had that with MEADA.”
Town meetings were standing room only as those looking to help in the fight or just curious to see what all the fuss was about banded together to make a difference. Even those on the front lines were shocked at how unified communities became.
“It was amazing how the public turned out for the town hall meetings,” Kelly said. “We had a meeting in Rogers that had more than 1,000 people attend. I think because we saturated the county with education and information that it helped. We were asked to give our template to other counties and even other states to see what we did that worked because they saw our program as a successful way to combat the problem.”
Over the last several years, the meth epidemic has waned.
It’s still a problem, but now is being replaced by the influx of designer drugs, increasingly potent marijuana and the unfortunate comeback of heroin as a drug of choice for users.
While MEADA’s initial mission statement centered on methamphetamine, the program has branched out and evolved as new drugs problems emerge.
“MEADA has done quite a bit over the last 10 years and continues to do so,” Kelly said. “Last year, it served more than 7,000 community members. While meth isn’t the problem to the extent it was 10 years ago, the objectives of MEADA are still in place today and we’re still fighting to protect children and families.”
In the war on drugs, it would seem that drugs is a foe that won’t go away and keeps drawing in new recruits.
Ten years after MEADA showed that citizens banding together can fight the war on their home turf, it would be naïve to think that drugs won’t be part of the culture of our society. But Hagerty hopes to never see the epidemic that methamphetamine caused a decade ago and why MEADA was formed.
“We’re always on the lookout for the next drug that’s coming down the line,” Hagerty said. “With the synthetic drugs that are out there, there will always be something, but I’m not sure we’re going to run into something that was so rampant and destructive to people’s lives than methamphetamine was 10 years ago.”