MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- Wisconsin’s attorney general, Josh Kaul, said the methamphetamine crisis will be one of his top priorities to address as he begins leading the Department of Justice.
"This is an incredibly dangerous drug and we need to make sure that people know about the dangers to try to deter people from getting addicted in the first place," he said.
Some of his efforts he said will include expanding prevention and education efforts, expanding access to treatment, and working with federal and local law enforcement to target large-scale traffickers to stop the drug coming into the state in the first place.
According to drug investigators, much of the methamphetamine in central Wisconsin is trafficked in through the Twin Cities from Mexico. Central Wisconsin used to have a problem with meth labs, but Everest Metro Police Chief Clay Schulz said ever since the federal government changed the laws restricting the amount of certain ingredients a person can buy at one time, meth cooks have been caught more easily, reducing the number of meth labs in the area.
The affects methamphetamine has on the body and mind of someone who uses are devastating and it can take a toll on family and friends, too. For those who do not see its use in their daily lives, does not mean they are not affected. Even taxes are impacted by the crisis.
"When it comes right down to illicit drugs that are impacting our community, methamphetamine has to be at or near the top," Melissa Moore, the Marathon County Health Department’s Drug Free Communities program coordinator said.
"Once it's introduced, it seems like it doesn't really go away," said Chief Schulz.
"You cannot be as productive as possible if you are actively using methamphetamine," urged Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon.
Combating methamphetamine use and distribution in Marathon County is a top priority for these agencies; it has been for a while.
Assistant District Attorney Kyle Mayo takes most of the drug cases that go through the Marathon County Courthouse.
"2011, there were 9 possession of methamphetamine charges in the county for that year,” he said. “You look back at last year in 2018 and there were 227, which is approximately 25 times more charges in less than a 10-year period."
Following the spike after 2011, the combined total number of charges filed for possession, possession with the intent to deliver, and delivery of meth has been greater than 300: 326 in 2016, 368 in 2017, and 306 in 2018. Looking at the court lists for 2019 so far, almost every day someone is newly getting charged for one of those crimes. The first day of court in the new year, at least a quarter of those making initial appearances were getting new meth charges against them.
Keep in mind, these numbers do not show the whole problem, but they give a glimpse. One person can have multiple charges, re-offend in the same year and get charged again, while others never get caught by law enforcement. These numbers also do not take into account other crimes committed because of meth.
"We've had people in the road in the middle of the road, calls with that with limited clothing on acting completely strange,” recalled Chief Schulz. “They don't know where they are, how they got there. You know, it's fearful for the public."
Chief Schulz said everything from homicide to theft to more minor crimes associated with the drug affect public safety, and currently the drug is cheap and widely available.
He explained they have had to change their protocol on how they handle meth cases as well. He said currently, the meth is very pure and they are often unsure if it has been cut with another drug, like fentanyl, which only takes a speck of dust to cause an overdose. Officers now have to go into scenes with hazmat suits and testing is done in a controlled, vacuumed area with two officers as extra precaution.
He has also dedicated one officer to the county’s special investigations unit for two years at a time so each officer has an opportunity to get some extra specialized training they can take back with them on patrol.
"The addiction is something you don't see with other types of drugs,” Chief Schulz said. “It's so strong and the behavior is so irrational and the highs are so high and the lows are so low that people will virtually do anything to get back to that feeling that they once had."
"For those that have used that have expressed to me what it felt like, they felt like they had super powers,” explained Moore. “You know, they felt they could do more, take on more challenges, stay up longer. And it's really, you know, something that's kind of nicknamed 'mama's little helper' because it's something that can keep you going."
Moore said all it takes is one use for someone to become addicted to the chemical drug. While users feel empowered on the highs, eventually paranoia sets in.
"It's amazing to watch somebody go through this cycle, convinced that there's something under their skin and there's things coming out of their skin and they start picking and the scabs form, there's significant weight loss associated with it," said Chief Schulz. “And to the general public, you would ask the question like I ask, well this doesn’t sound like any fun. I mean look at the paranoia they’re going through. But yet, after they get through that, they’re back into that cycle and that cycle continues and physical addiction is difficult too because if they don’t have that in their system, we call it dope sick, and it’s violently ill, vomiting, and they feel awful. So it’s something that needs a lot of maintenance when you introduce this to your body. It’s not like you can have this in your body and then when it’s gone, you feel fine. The addiction is quick and it’s a very difficult cycle to get out of.”
Which is why recovering from that addiction is a long process, one that can be filled with relapses. Moore said those in recovery need support all throughout the process and beyond.
"It really touches every class, every age, every neighborhood, every church. It really doesn't matter where you are, where you come from, what you do, it really does impact everybody," she said.
"We go into an investigation on an embezzlement case and we learn that it was a drug addiction that was fueling it,” Chief Schulz said. “And you look at the person's background and the type of job that they hold and you'd be surprised."
"Whether it's someone directly in your family, whether it's through your tax dollars for services, methamphetamine is a huge cost to our law enforcement and foster care system," Moore continued.
There are programs in the county working to help people get into recovery and be successful, including traditional treatment through health care centers. The drug court, which is only a few years old, is also helping by giving people who have tried everything else one last chance to change.
The court fills up quickly; there are only 25 spots available and program lasts about 18 months. Wetzsteon said because of the limited space, it’s reserved for people who otherwise would be going to prison, who already tried probation, and who have children. It requires a lot of extra time and resources from defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, and judges, all areas of which are severely short staffed, resource deficient.
"It's a symbol of our system's recognition of the problem, the depth of the problem, and the need to find some kind of solution, especially, like we said, prioritizing people with families," she said.
Wetzsteon explained the court system has been discussing ways to create an addiction intervention program that would provide help before someone is convicted (the drug court is a post-conviction program), but since people at that point in the court process will have not been proven guilty, the logistics of being able to create a program like that are challenging.
These leaders combating the crisis urge citizens to learn more about the methamphetamine problem and potentially even volunteer time to be part of reducing its use and guiding people through recovery.
"Instead of standing in judgement of those people, to be open to being supportive," said Wetzsteon.
The AOD Partnership has numerous resources available for anyone interested in getting help, getting more informed, or providing help to others. North Central Health Care works with AOD Partnership as well, but goes beyond Marathon County. You can also find treatment clinics in your area by clicking here. Wisconsin Department of Justice also provides state data and fact sheets, and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration provides a nationwide view of the problem.