by SARAH SQUIRES
Methamphetamine kills. It destroys families. It harms children. It's one of the hardest drugs to kick, and its rising use in the region, including Western Wisconsin, is overwhelming law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and health and human services agencies. And, according to Trempealeau County District Attorney Taavi McMahon, the current approach to combating the methamphetamine abuse crisis is simply not working.
According to a detailed study issued by the FBI and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, meth use has skyrocketed across the country, and Western Wisconsin is of particular concern in the state. A 2014 EPIC summary of drug interdictions on the top 10 highways showed seizures of crystal meth increased by 80 percent in just one year. In Trempealeau County, "sometimes, it seems like the entire criminal calendar is filled with defendants who are being charged with possession of methamphetamine, the delivery of this dangerous and toxic substance, or have some aspect of their life negatively impacted by it," wrote McMahon.
Meth is a clear crystal that may be ground into a powder and sniffed, smoked, or liquified and injected. It's a highly addictive stimulant, and the report states that some of Wisconsin's meth is being "cooked" at clandestine labs in the state, but much is brought to the Midwest by Mexican cartels. There is estimated to be nearly 1.2 million users in the United States, and in Wisconsin, the report indicates that meth availability in the state increased between 250 and 300 percent since 2011. Between 2011 and 2015, meth cases analyzed by the report increased 349 percent. Trempealeau County was among the top 10 counties in Wisconsin with the largest meth increase over that time.
The epidemic does not just result in crimes of possession and sale of the drug; meth use contributes to other crimes such as armed robbery, battery, child endangerment, domestic and sexual assault, burglary, prostitution, and other crimes.
Meth users also suffer from increased medical issues including coronary heart disease, cardiomyopathy, liver disease, psychosis, Parkinson's disease and tooth decay. Withdrawal symptoms are severe, and the study indicates that prolonged use of methamphetamine can have a dramatic impact on the brain's production and release of dopamine that can last up to a year or longer after a user quits.
Similar to the link between prescription opiate abuse and rising heroin abuse, the report indicates that the abuse of the prescription drug Adderall — which is a stimulant drug used to treat ADD and ADHD — has also contributed to the rise in methamphetamine addiction. A disruption in the supply of Adderall, said the report, "may lead an abuser to switch to meth, a readily available substitute."
Perhaps the most heartbreaking affect in the methamphetamine crisis is the impact it has on children and families. The report indicates that meth has a more negative effect on the lives of Wisconsin children than other drug addictions, and that they are often exposed to unsafe living conditions — "living in a home with meth-addicted parents exposes children to sexual situations, abuse, and abandonment."
The few treatment options available in the Midwest are often not sufficient to treat meth addiction; treatment facilities are typically not set up to maintain the treatment over the length of time needed to address meth addiction, which leads to frequent relapses.
And, meth use, according to the report, may cost Wisconsin $424 million annually. That includes nearly $10 million in drug treatment costs, $6.4 million in health care, "intangibles/premature death" at $301.5 million, $12.5 million in lost productivity, $76.3 million in crime and criminal justice costs, $16.4 million in child endangerment cases, and $1.1 million in "production/environment" cleanup.
The report included testimonials from meth users that explained why they began and continued to use the drug. One white man between 26-35 years old said he used it as a way to cope with unaddressed feelings from his childhood; his parents had used cocaine, and after he tried that, his dealer gave him some meth to try for free. That's all it took.
One white woman between 18-25 years old said she began using marijuana and alcohol in high school, and later tried heroin and meth. She said Adderall abuse contributed to her meth addiction, and she stated "meth was an easy transition as it gave her the 'up' she sought."
"Of one thing I am certain, we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem," said McMahon. He reported that a lack of treatment options has law enforcement and the courts left to try to deal with addiction, and jails are not set up to provide the kind of support needed to treat meth addicts. "All too often we are asking the judge to place addicts in jail and expecting that punishing addicts for using drugs will somehow make them stop," he continued. "The only real hope for addicts is treatment, and we need to work together as a community to increase the availability and quality of those options … Our office should not be in the awkward position of having to convict somebody of a felony in order to help them get services and treatment. I believe it is time to treat this problem as it should be: a public health crisis.