EAU CLAIRE, Wis. – The two dozen people in drug court spoke of losing driver’s licenses, struggling to find jobs and adjusting to life in a halfway house.
“It’s been a little frustrating, I gather,” the judge told one of the former addicts, Heidi. She had cycled through job interviews after two arrests for driving high on methamphetamine, spending months in prison and violating parole.
But she had good news: “I’m sober as a stick.”
Heidi and her former dealers in the courtroom this month have been part of an explosion of meth use in western Wisconsin. Cases processed by the state’s crime lab have tripled since 2008, hitting 920 in 2014.
Meth reached a crisis across the Midwest a decade ago, until states began passing laws limiting the sale of a key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, used in home meth labs. That led to a decline for a few years, but meth began rising again as a highly pure form of it trafficked by Mexican cartels supplanted homegrown supplies.
The increase in Wisconsin is dramatic, and officials here say they are mystified about what’s causing it. They say dealers pick up Mexican meth from the Twin Cities, then move it over the river. Most meth cases in the state are now concentrated in its western region. Meth is more rare in eastern Wisconsin, where heroin from Chicago dominates the drug scene.
Meth, which can be smoked, snorted or injected, is a highly addictive stimulant more common in rural areas. It makes users more alert and increases the heart rate. Over the long term, it can cause brain damage.
“Back 10 years ago, when meth was really rising in Wisconsin, there was sort of an all-hands-on-deck approach to it and we were seeing a lot of public outcry about it, a lot of political pressure being put on the enforcement,” said Eau Claire Police Sgt. Andrew Falk, who leads a six-county drug task force. “That pressure seems to have subsided.”
In drug court, coordinator Pat Isenberger said 40 percent of participants considered meth their drug of choice. Just two of the roughly 30 people were meth users in 2010; now, it’s 12. He said participants have told him it’s gotten cheap and easy to get.
“We’ve never seen this high number of meth addicts,” Isenberger said.
Alarmed by the stresses that meth is inflicting on the community, Eau Claire County has formed a committee of prosecutors, addiction counselors, corrections officers, human services employees, public defenders and others to study the problem.
“We’re not satisfied with the traditional approaches that have been taken,” said Gary King, Eau Claire County district attorney.
Top dealers arrested
Concerns continue even after some top meth dealers have been taken down.
Last June, Eau Claire police said the arrests of 20 people in a major meth ring would greatly lower the availability of the drug. Authorities said the ringleader, who was sentenced to six years in prison, brought 20 pounds of meth back from the Twin Cities.
In Douglas County, police are conducting an ongoing investigation after a dealer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring with two Arizona men to traffic nearly 50 pounds of meth worth more than $460,000 into the Twin Cities.
Superior Police Sgt. James Madden said that case was exceptional, with meth purity levels he hadn’t seen before.
The increase in meth worries law enforcement and health professionals because addiction often leads to other crimes, like stealing, and takes more intensive work to treat.
“People say, ‘Well, who cares? They’re just going to use meth,’” said Western Wisconsin U.S. Attorney John W. Vaudreuil. “But people who are using meth aren’t keeping jobs, they aren’t feeding their children, they need money … that’s what drives those other crimes.”
In December, Eau Claire police executed a search warrant of a trailer house, after fielding a report from child services that Danny Beckstead’s 13 year-old son came home and saw his father passed out on the couch with a meth pipe, cutoff straws and a crystal-like material.
Officers found the home in disarray, with three meth pipes and used hypodermic needles. The youngest child, 2, tested positive for meth.
Beckstead and his wife were jailed and their children were handed off to caretakers.
The toll of meth
Nearly 80 percent of the participants in Eau Claire County’s drug court for women with children come in with meth charges, a dramatic reversal from a few years ago when prescription drugs were dominant. In half the cases, a child tested positive for meth, forcing child protection services to intervene.
Marsha Schiszik, who coordinates the program, said a lot of the women previously had been drinking or smoking marijuana but it didn’t take over their life. Then someone introduced them to meth, which spurred a rapid downfall.
Treating people on meth costs more and takes longer than addressing many other drug addictions. Meth releases a large amount of dopamine, connected with pleasurable feelings. When an addict quits, the damaged brain struggles to adjust and unhappiness sets in.
In Eau Claire’s main drug court, former addicts filled a dozen benches recently to report their progress to Judge Michael A. Schumacher. As each person stepped to the podium, the rest applauded as the judge announced the length of their sobriety.
Among them was Heidi, who requested that her last name not be used because she is looking for a job after being released from prison. She turned to meth in 2012, as the drug was just starting to surge in western Wisconsin. She owed a lot of money, her boyfriend had just left her, and she wanted to get high, she said.
Heidi couldn’t hold down a job and lost her driver’s license after getting arrested twice for driving high. She went to prison for more than a year and a half and was caught with meth again while on parole.
She finally agreed to go to drug court late last year.
“You’ve been doing a great job so far,” Schumacher told her of her seven clean months. “Keep up the hard work.”